Unaware, Then Overwhelmed: Hurricane Of 1938 Still Historic

Half-eaten by the sea, the remains of a house stand on White Sand Beach in Old Lyme. As the eye of the Hurricane of 1938 passed over Milford, land to the east was subjected to the storm's most powerful winds and waves. (Courant File Photo)

When the topic is hurricanes in these parts, the conversation begins and ends with the one that stormed ashore on Sept. 21, 1938.

"The Great Hurricane of 1938," slammed into Long Island with such force that it registered on a seismograph in Alaska and washed windows in central Vermont with a salty spray.

The loss of life was estimated at somewhere between 650 people and 700, including 380 in Rhode Island, 99 in Massachusetts, 50 on Long Island, and 85 in Connecticut. So many people died in Westerly, R.I., (112) that there was a shortage of embalming fluid.

Damage from the storm included 19,500 structures damaged or destroyed; 26,000 vehicles dented or totaled; 5,600 boats wrecked, driven ashore, or sunk; 20,000 miles of wires down; half-million telephones out of service; 1,675 head of livestock and 750,000 chickens killed; half the tobacco crop rendered worthless; and enough trees toppled to build 200,000, five-room houses

Monetary losses were put at $500 million in 1938 dollars, of which only 5 percent was covered by insurance.

Everyone who survived, of course, had a story, many of which have entered into Hurricane of '38 lore:

The man who left home for the post office to mail back a new barometer he thought was malfunctioning, only to find his house gone when he returned.

The sight of birds flying full force into the wind, and remaining in place.

Chestnuts being blown off a tree and peppering a nearby house like buckshot.

People standing on the beach looking at a strange fog bank rolling in only to realize as it gets closer that it is actually a wall of water traveling at highway speeds.

Forecasters Clueless

As Sept. 21 dawns, no one knows the most epic hurricane in New England history is on the way — including the National Weather Bureau.

Meteorologists there have been tracking the "Cape Verde" born hurricane since noticing it near Puerto Rico, but breathe easier when it abruptly veers north. When hurricanes turn north as they approach the U.S. coastline, they are almost always pushed out to sea by the prevailing west-to-east winds.

The official forecast for New England on Sept. 21 is windy; rain possibly heavy; cooler.

What the Washington D.C. based forecasters are missing, though, is that a strong high pressure system in the North Atlantic is keeping the storm from being pushed away, and a narrow low-pressure trough is being created that will guide the storm directly toward New England.

Blocked to the east and west, the storm is unable to spread out and so it becomes increasingly concentrated, increasingly powerful as it heads north. Near Cape Hatteras, N.C., it picks up the jet stream and now it is roaring up the coast at 60 mph.

Because the storm track does not take it over any land mass, it doesn't lose any strength as moves. The timing is also bad. The storm will hit at high tide on the equinox, when tides are already abnormally high.

The eye of the storm passes directly over Milford. The wind is blowing 100 mph, but along the shore it is the storm surge that is doing the major damage. Docks are being reduced to kindling, boats are being driven aground, cottages are being demolished, swept away or washed across bays intact.

Inland, rivers are rising, streets are flooding, trees are crashing down, utility poles are cracking, live wires are dancing, roofs are being blown off, and people are dying.

A man grabs a live wire and is electrocuted.