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New England Hurricanes: The Great Hurricanes of New England 1635, 1815, 1938

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Street Flooding After the Long Island Express Hurricane

Streets were flooded so high workers could not get through to help people in the area.

Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS, NWS Historic Collection

New England Hurricane History:

When we think of hurricanes striking the eastern seaboard these days our thoughts turn to the Carolinas or Florida as alternatives to the Gulf states, as was with Katrina.

In the course of the last 372 years there have been three hurricanes that have struck New England with brute force, leveling forests of trees, sending huge waves battering the shores, flooding towns and rivers in quick fashion, filtering debris through the air in compressed rotary motion, and sinking ships at sea. Hurricanes come and go in New England as elsewhere, but three have made a lasting impression on historians of weather.

The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635:

One such storm was known as the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635, striking the Jamestown settlement and Massachusetts bay colony in that year. The storm had a storm track similar to the Great Atlantic hurricane of 1944 which was parallel to the coast.

The eye of the storm evidently passed between Plymouth and Boston, and winds were estimated at 140mph, a deadly Category 4 hurricane. In Narragansett bay the tide was 14 feet above the ordinary tide and drowned many native people. There was severe damage to houses along Plymouth with complete blowdowns in rural areas of Eastern Massachusetts.

The Great September Gale of 1815:

It would be 180 years later that a storm of equal strength occurred, with the so-called Great September Gale of 1815. It also thought to be one of the first hurricane to strike New England with such force since 1635. With estimated winds of 135 mph on the Saffir-Simpson scale of today, the hurricane eye came ashore on the south side of Long Island delivering a mighty 11 foot storm surge that funneled into Narragansett Bay destroying 500 houses and 35 ships, flooding Providence, RI with high waters.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938:

In 1938, a storm dubbed the Long Island Express formed in September and slowly evolved into a Category 5 storm in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm began to recurve near the Bahamas and gained a forward speed of 70 mph, launching in rocket-like motion past Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and shoving its eye into Long Island, crashing through the bay towns with a force residents never knew possible. This was a mighty hurricane with an eye 50 miles across and a storm 500 miles wide causing $308 million in damages. The path of the storm can be seen in this historical interactive map of the 1938 New England hurricane.

More on the Long Island Express of 1938:

The National Weather Service predicted the hurricane would recurve out to sea, but instead it smashed into Long Island and then curved inland swamping Providence, Massachusetts with a tidal surge 14 feet high. The impact of the 1938 storm killed at least 708 people, damaged 25,000 homes, 26,000 automobiles, and downed 20,000 electrical poles. The Long Island Express came and went, and within days newspaper headlines focused on the start of World War II in Europe. The Great Hurricanes of New England were widely spaced apart in time, but none were forgotten.

Images of the 1938 New England Hurricane:

For historic images of the 1938 Long Island Express Hurricane from the NOAA archives, go to the Long Island Express Photo Gallery.

The Reason These Storms Are Not Named:

Hurricane naming practices began in 1953 with an official list from the National Hurricane Center. Originally, the storms were given only female names. In 1979, the practice of adding male names began. Go to the list of possible hurricane names from 2007 through 2012 to see if a hurricane could bear your name.

Article content contributed in part by Dave Paterno, all rights reserved.

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