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New England's Hurricane: The Long Island Express: Arrival September 21, 1938

Updated on July 5, 2019

Map of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938

an image of the destruction from the hurricane
an image of the destruction from the hurricane

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Back in the day hurricanes didn't get names if anything they earned titles based on the damage they did or the location they hit. One of these unnamed storms blasted New England in the late 1930's with no warning and so much force that it is now referred to as The Long Island express or The Great New England Hurricane of 1938. I grew up hearing stories about this storm from my grandmother, who was a young girl living in New Haven, CT at the time. The hurricane blasted Long Island unexpectedly and moved across Long Island Sound crossing right over New Haven into New England. I'll get to some of her observations later but first more about the storm!

The storm hit in the late 1930s at the tail end of the depression but before World War II. At the time observations were limited, especially when it came to hurricanes at sea. The only reports available were from Islands and ships, which the latter usually avoided the storms. From what many deduce, this storm was a Cape Verde storm, meaning it began its origins off the coast of Africa, by the Cape Verde islands. As it worked it's way across the Atlantic, it began to gain steam, swirling into a storm, heading in an unknown trajectory. As it neared the United States, the fringe of the storm impacted coastal regions of Florida and the Carolina's. These impacts along with the very little meteorological knowledge of the day had weather offices predicting the storm to race out to sea after brushing the Outer Banks, leaving New England with some cloudy weather to start but clearing up by the afternoon. The forecast could not be farther from the truth! As the storm spun off the Carolina's it sped up, some say to 60 mph, due north towards Long Island. Still at category three status, what we consider a major hurricane today with winds of 111 mph to 130 mph, it headed straight for New England at record speed. By mid-afternoon, around three pm, the storm slammed into Long Island bringing with it a record storm surge that washed away homes all along Long Island, Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, and even flooded Providence, RI with record storm surge! Along with the surge came heavy rain and strong winds, knocking down trees throughout New England, including many of the elms in the Elm City, aka New Haven. The storm flew through in a few hours dying out in the mountains of Vermont and Canada but not without leaving a path of destruction and death. The storm's mere force and the element of surprise cost so many people their lives and reshaped whole communities. You can find many stats about the storm in the books I mention below or on the Internet, some are fascinating while others are horrifying.

Rare video clips from the Hurricane

First Hand Account

Here I'm going to give a brief description of the story my grandmother has told me over and over again about her day on September 21st 1938 in New Haven, CT. I believe this story contributed to me becoming the weather geek i am! My grandmother was nine years old at time and attending private school in New Haven with her twin sister. My grandmother always begins the story by telling me about how rainy it was that week just like how the entire summer seemed rainy. It was late September and school was in session, my grandmother had stayed home that morning because of a cold, while her twin sister attended school. The day began with a few showers, which prompted my great grandmother to keep my grandmother home. As the morning went on the rain stopped and the sun began to shine through. So when her twin sister came home for lunch, my grandmother was told to go to school for the afternoon. Around 3pm when school was getting ready to let out the clouds rolled in but there was something odd about the clouds. Soon after the sky was pitch black, my grandmother still says to this day that she has never seen the sky so dark in the middle of the afternoon. The sky was dark enough that one of her classmates, who lived just across the street from the school was too afraid to leave. The school refused to send anyone home without their parents picking them up. As the sky got darker and the rain began to fall, my grandmother and her twin sister got pick up by their older cousin who also lived with them. It took a while for them to get home in the rain and wind but when they finally got home they felt a little better. Her whole family, including her extended family sat inside their home sitting out the storm. My grandmother's other cousin Donald was still at school. As my grandmother's aunt looked out the window at the windswept rain pouring down on the street she saw a small figure slowly walking. She turned to rest of the family and said "look at this poor soul, all wet, walking down the street", as my grandmother's other aunt looked out the window, she suddenly realized that figure was her son Donald! In the mix up of the sudden storm he had ended up walking home from school in the storm, a miracle that he was never hurt! They waited out the rest of the storm inside their home, lucky to not see the storm surge the coast was seeing but still in shock and awe of the sudden onset of the storm. After the storm, trees were down every where and my grandmother and her sister didn't return to school for over a month. New England and Connecticut hasn't seen a storm this strong since, some say it's a 100 year storm. All i know is I would have not come across it till later in life it were not for my grandmother's first hand experience!

The front and back of a vintage postcard i found in a used book store in Rhode Island.  It's a picture from Stonington,Ct after the storm and gives some stats
The front and back of a vintage postcard i found in a used book store in Rhode Island. It's a picture from Stonington,Ct after the storm and gives some stats

Great Books on the Hurricane

Below I listed a number of books that focus on The Great New England of 1938. I have read all of them and own all of them. I highly recommend these books because they shed light on a storm that seems to be ignored by many. These books not only share the few stats of the storm but the real impact of the storm, which are the stories and experiences of the people. Many of these books mention one famous movie star who was directly impacted by this storm, her and her family owned property right on the water in Connecticut and watched their house get washed away by the storm surge during the hurricane. That famous actress was the very talented Katharine Hepburn, who had actually gone for swim in Long Island sound the morning of the Hurricane! Although it doesn't cover nearly as much as it should, I hope this article has enlighten you about the Long Island Express and has encouraged you to learn more about a hurricane that surprised many but was then lost in history...

Book Title
Sudden Sea: The The Great Hurricane of 1938
R.A. Scotti
The Great Hurricane: 1938
Cherie Burns
Connecticut Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival
Ellsworth S. Grant
Hurricane in the Hamptons, 1938
Mary Cummings
New England Remembers The Hurricane of 1938
Robert Allison and Aram Goudsouzian

Have you heard of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938?

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It was called the Long Island Express because it raced from the Outer Banks to Long Island in one afternoon!
It was called the Long Island Express because it raced from the Outer Banks to Long Island in one afternoon! | Source


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    • BWD316 profile imageAUTHOR

      Brian Dooling 

      9 years ago from Connecticut

      Yeah crazy week, first an earthquake now a possible hurricane on Sunday, last hurricane to hit my area of Ct was Gloria in '85 two years before I was born! Lol always wanted to experience one but now I'm not too sure lol

    • Megan Kathleen profile image

      Megan Kathleen 

      9 years ago from Los Gatos, CA

      My sister felt it in NC too! Stay safe with all the craziness!

    • BWD316 profile imageAUTHOR

      Brian Dooling 

      9 years ago from Connecticut

      Thanks Megan, how weird you mention earthquakes, although i didn't feel it we just had a pretty big one for the east coast! 5.9 in Virginia, friends working in NYC text me saying their buildings were shaking for about 20-30 secs! even here in Connecticut many buildings got evacuated, we don't get quakes like this!

    • Megan Kathleen profile image

      Megan Kathleen 

      9 years ago from Los Gatos, CA

      Being a west coaster, I am more well versed on earthquakes than hurricanes (like the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed my elementary school), so I had not heard of this particular one. I particularly enjoyed your retelling of your grandmother's experiences. Luckily your family made it through safely! Thank you for sharing.


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