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The Great Hurricane of '38: The Startling Numbers

The staggering numbers help tell the story of the worst natural disaster ever to strike New England.

Bushnell Park in Hartford was mostly flooded after the Hurricane of '38. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bushnell Park in Hartford was mostly flooded after the Hurricane of '38. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
by Philip R. Devlin

The word "hurricane" probably found its way into the English language through Spanish. While sailing for Spain, Christopher Columbus encountered a fierce tropical storm in the Caribbean in 1494. The storm sunk some of his ships. Supposedly, the word is derived from the Carib word "Hurican" — the god of evil. 

Most scholars of language believe that "Hurican" is probably derived from the Mayan god "Hurakan," who blew his breath across the water to create life and then later destroyed life with a great storm and flood. The great storm and flood caused by the Great Hurricane of 1938 — 75 years ago this month — was simply staggering.

Consider the following facts about the "Long Island Express":

• It was the first major hurricane to strike New England since 1899 — 39 years earlier. 
• It was a Category 5 hurricane that became Category 3 when it hit New England. 
• It was nicknamed the “Long Island Express,” as its forward speed reached 70 mph!
• Its extreme forward speed enhanced wind force. 
• Gusts in the Northeast section of the hurricane reached up to 200 mph— a catastrophic level. 
• It struck mid-afternoon on Sept. 21, 1938, at high tide and with a full moon--events which worsened the effects of the storm.
• It killed between 650 and 800 people in New England — nearly 400 in Rhode Island alone!
• The storm destroyed over 57,000 homes. 
• Over 2 billion trees in New England and New York were felled by the storm!
• The storm resulted in over $4.7 billion in property damage in 2013 dollars. 
• It was the worst storm since the Great New England Hurricane of 1635 — a probable Category 4 storm.
• Over 26,000 cars were lost. 
• Over 20,000 electrical poles were toppled. 
• A 6- to 20-inch rainfall was reported. 
• A similar hurricane in 2013 would cause nearly $40 billion in damage. 
• An estimated 1,300 to 1,600 New Englanders have lost their lives as a direct result of the great storms and floods caused by hurricanes since the 17th century, with more than half of them lost to one hurricane — the "Long Island Express" of Sept. 21, 1938. 
• Of the 18 states that have been known to have been affected by hurricanes since records have been kept, the six New England states constitute the very bottom of the rankings in terms of hurricane frequency, with Connecticut ranked as 14th. 

Katherine Hepburn was playing a round of golf in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook just prior to the arrival of the storm; in fact, she had just shot a round of 31 for nine holes, including a hole-in-one on the par-3 9th hole on the course! Then the winds picked up and obliterated the family home on the coast. Here's what Kate had to say about the experience:

"My God. It was something devastating — and unreal — like the beginning of the world — or the end of it — and I slogged and sloshed, crawled through ditches and hung on to keep going somehow — got drenched and bruised and scratched — completely bedraggled — finally got to where there was a working phone and called Dad."

The Hepburn family rebuilt the house. This time, however, they used stone instead of wood and raised the house up six feet off of the ground. Kate lived there until she died at age 96 in 2003. 

About 11 months ago, so-called "Superstorm Sandy" struck the East Coast with its fury. Connecticut was on the periphery of that monster storm that did so much damage to the Mid-Atlantic area. A year before that, Tropical Storm Irene inundated the Northeast and caused tremendous flooding and power loss. Yet as powerful as Irene and Sandy were, they don't compare in strength and destruction to the Great Hurricane of 1938. Unlike the people of 1938, we will have at least several days' warning of the arrival of the next big hurricane, so that many fewer lives will be lost. 

Nevertheless, the power of a direct hit of a Category 3 or 4 hurricane on Connecticut in the near future would be devastatingly destructive to shoreline areas in particular. There is a good reason why the late, popular Connecticut meteorologist Dr. Mel Goldstein called hurricanes "the most powerful storms on the earth," and all we need to do to remind ourselves of this sobering fact is to look at the catastrophic damage done to the Northeast by the "Long Island Express" 75 years ago.

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