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Survivors, scientists recall ‘Great Hurricane’

Storm devastated entire region, but left its biggest impact on coastal areas

The storm caused the wreck of these yachts in Onset Bay, Wareham.Globe photo/File 1938

Irene Goodwin Kane, then 14, returned home to Roslindale from Girls’ Latin School on Sept. 21, 1938, to find her mother pacing the house from room to room, fretting about the weather.

As her father arrived home from work, a vicious wind whipped around their Kittredge Street home beneath a sky gone gray. He parked out back as usual, but then, watching the wind, moved his car to the front.

“About five minutes after he had parked the car, this enormous tree in our backyard came completely uprooted and came crashing down, right where his car would have been parked,” said Kane, 89. “That was when I realized that this was really bad.”


It was worse than she could have known.

On that September afternoon 75 years ago today, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 tore into New York’s Long Island and then Milford, Conn., and raged through Massachusetts and Vermont, leaving a path of flooded towns, flattened homes, and fires caused by downed power lines.

”This enormous tree in our backyard came completely uprooted and came crashing down,” said Irene Goodwin Kane, who was 14 when the storm hit. “That was when I realized that this was really bad.”The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The Category 3 hurricane killed 564 people and injured more than 1,700, according to the National Weather Service, and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes. The storm’s peak wind gust, recorded at Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, was 186 miles per hour.

According to the Weather Service, the hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18- to 25-foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod.

Of the areas devastated by the rising coastal waters, one of the worst hit was Narragansett Bay, where a storm surge reached 12 to 15 feet and destroyed most structures along the water, according to the Weather Service. In Providence, the storm tide reached almost 20 feet, the service said on its website.

The Weather Service said sections of Falmouth and New Bedford were submerged under as much as 8 feet of water.


Damage to the fishing fleets in Southern New England was catastrophic. A total of 2,605 vessels were destroyed, with 3,369 damaged, authorities said.

Coming before televisions, computers, or weather satellites, the storm’s speed and fury took both meteorologists and residents by surprise, according to forecasters.

Meteorology professor Lourdes B. Avilés said the storm remains “the one to which all other New England hurricanes are sooner or later compared.”

“When the storm surge came, the impact caused seismographs to record [vibrations] almost as if it were an earthquake,” said Avilés, author of the book “Taken by Storm, 1938: A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane,” published earlier this month.

Avilés, a professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, will be among the meteorologists gathered at a commemorative hurricane conference at the Blue Hill Observatory & Science Center Saturday, the anniversary of the devastation.

She said the 1938 storm was unusual for New England hurricanes in that it caused devastation not only along the coastline, but well into the region’s interior.

It arrived after four days of rain, pouring 3 to 6 inches of water onto already saturated ground in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, causing floods that washed away roadways and railroad lines.

The altar was still standing at St. Hedwig Parish in East Cambridge.Thomas C. Connors/Globe Staff/File 1938

As bad as it was, Avilés said, there has sometimes been a tendency to exaggerate the hurricane’s speed. Its swift progress north, measured at 50 miles an hour, has sometimes been overstated as 60 or 70.


She said there also is exaggeration in a popular story about Charlie Pierce, a young US Weather Bureau meteorologist, correctly predicting that the storm would hit New England and being overruled by his superiors, who then failed to issue a hurricane warning.

Her research showed that Pierce probably created an accurate forecast, Avilés said, but that it was done as a practice exercise and would not have been reviewed by senior meteorologists.

In the absence of modern forecasting tools, she said, meteorologists in 1938 lacked the data to predict the storm’s path accurately.

They could not have foreseen that the hurricane would change the shape of the coastline, shifting sand and topsoil, opening new channels, even creating Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island, Avilés said, or the changes it would bring to inland terrain.

“The forest destruction was so large that the whole forest ecosystem was severely changed,” Avilés said. “New species grew. Animals that normally lived in those areas were displaced.”

New England has not seen another Category 3 hurricane since 1954, when two major storms struck within 12 days of each other. But Glenn Field, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, warned that statistically the region is due.

“If you take the average of the Southern New England coast, it’s pretty close to 59 years,” he said. “Fifty-nine years [ago] is the last time we had a Category 3 hurricane, and that is about — give or take 5 or 10 years — the return period that one would expect.”


Field cautioned that such averages are not helpful for predicting specific weather patterns and that another major hurricane could strike this year, in 10 years, or in 20. But he is concerned, he said, that New England residents do not expect such a storm and are not prepared for one.

“It would be pretty much a shock if something like that came through today,” he said.

It was a shock in 1938 for Win Firman, then a student at Amherst College.

“My brother and I were at football practice, and the wind was blowing harder and harder, and he punted and the ball came back . . . over his head,” Firman, 94, said. “And the coach said, ‘Well, we’d better call it quits.’ ”

As Firman and his older brother walked back to their dormitory, shards of glass from the college gymnasium’s windows flew by them, he said. They “hunkered down” in the dorm as the storm passed, he said, and emerged the next morning to find roofs blown off campus buildings and large rows of trees flattened.

“So college was called off for a couple of days, and students went out with saws and began to saw up the trees and put the logs away,” Firman said. “The place was a disaster.”

In Woods Hole, the water rose 13 feet, and a tidal wave within the storm pushed into Buzzards Bay and then flowed back out, reaching across the peninsula to its tip at Penzance Point, according to Jennifer Gaines, director of the Woods Hole Historical Museum.


The wave drowned two caretakers who looked after elegant estates that stood upon the point, as well as three Coast Guardsmen who had come to rescue them.

“It was horrible,” Gaines said. “Every shoreline, every harbor, the boats were all washed ashore.”

In Roslindale, Kane’s family had no idea what to do in a hurricane, but they stayed inside as the powerful winds roared past and emerged to find similar tree damage at the nearby Arnold Arboretum.

“They were all lying down like matchsticks, side by side, pointing down the hill,” she said. “There were trees down everywhere.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.