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Buzzards Bay area could be devastated if a hurricane similar to 1938 storm hits, weather service says

The 1938 hurricane brought strong winds and tidal surges to Buzzards Bay, causing extensive property damage.

BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

The 1938 hurricane brought strong winds and tidal surges to Buzzards Bay, causing extensive property damage.

If a storm similar to the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 strikes again, communities in Buzzards Bay could be devastated, according to a computerized model developed by the National Weather Service.

“It’s beautiful to live at the coast, that’s for sure, but one of these days it’s going to get us,” said Glenn Field, warning coordination meteorologist for the Weather Service in Taunton.

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The SLOSH (Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) model shows the worst outcome of any given storm track, Field said. The model takes into account factors includ­ing atmospheric pressure, size, forward speed, and tracking to estimate storm ­effects.

The 1938 Category 3 storm, which hit shore in Long Island and then struck Milford, Conn., 74 years ago on Friday, killed 564 people and injured 1,700 more, according to the Weather Service. With wind gusts up to 186 miles per hour and tides as high as 25 feet, it was one of the most destructive storms ever to hit Southern New England.

The Weather Service model was used to simulate a Category 3 hurricane traveling at 60 miles per hour, similar to the 1938 storm, moving through Narragansett Bay, just west of Buzzards Bay, Field said.

Weather Service meteorologists estimated that ground ­zero for the the hurricane would be the Gray Gables section of Bourne, along with Parkwood and Swifts beaches in Wareham, Field said.

“Those places could experience 25- to-30-foot storm surges someday,” he said. A storm surge is the rise above normal high tide. Buzzards Bay has never recorded a surge greater than 16 feet, Field said.

Field said a similar storm to the one in 1938 would cause “an unbelievable amount of damage” today, because homes and buildings now stand where trees once did.

Nearly 9,000 homes were destroyed and about 15,000 were damaged in 1938. About 2,600 boats were also ­destroyed.

“While we’ve had a couple of hurricanes since then, we like to say that people have a warped sense of reality” ­because they have not seen the damage that could be caused by a major hurricane, Field said. “Not through any fault of their own, but because it hasn’t happened in a while.”

The 1938 hurricane brought the strongest winds ever recorded in the region, according to the Weather Service. The Blue Hill Observatory reported sustained winds of 121 miles per hour and a peak wind gust of 186. Damage from the storm was widespread and severe. Some families were without power for weeks.

Homes and marinas near Narragansett Bay were ruined, and downtown Providence was submerged under a 20-foot storm tide, according to the Weather Service, which cited a research paper by David R. Vallee and Michael R. Dion entitled “Southern New England Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, a Ninety-Eight-Year Summary, 1909-1997.”

New England has taken a hit from only four major hurricanes in the last century, Field said, listing the storms of 1938, 1944, and hurricanes Carol and Edna in 1954.

The most recent official hurricane to hit New England ­directly was Hurricane Bob, a Category 2 storm that hit ­Newport on Aug. 19, 1991.

“It was big, but it was not huge,” Field said. “Basically, a major hurricane is considered a Category 3 or higher.”

Melissa Werthmann
can be reached at melissa.
werthmann­@globe.com
.
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