Of all the hurricanes that have made their way to New England, the hurricane of 38' will long be remembered as the most destructive and costliest of storms. In 1990 dollars, the Storm of 38' caused $3,593,853,000 dollars in damage throughout New England. This ranks as the seventh costliest storm in U.S. History. However, the cost of the storm cannot only be measured in dollars, it can be measured in lives lost as well. This storm also has the dubious distinction of ranking fourth among the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. History. More than 600 people died in the storm, nearly 2000 people were seriously injured, and over 16,000 families were either displaced or left homeless.
The storm began as a strong tropical wave off the coast of Africa, near the Cape Verde Islands. As it moved westward across the Atlantic, it continued to gain strength. On September 15, 1938, the storm was upgraded to a hurricane well to the east of Puerto Rico. By September 18th at 8:30 A.M. the storm had moved to a position due north of Puerto Rico and due east of the Bahamas tracking west-northwest toward Florida. At that time, officials in Florida began making preparations for the possibility of the storm impacting that state. However, on September 20th, residents of Florida could breath a sigh of relief as the storm curved northward toward the Carolinas. During the next 24 hours, the storm moved approximately 300 miles at a forward speed of around 12.5 mph. By 8:30 A.M. on September 21st, the storm had completed its curve northward, and was passing 75 miles east of Cape Hatteras, NC.
While the storm was moving up the coast, a deep trough of low pressure was moving out of the Great Lakes. This trough was strong enough to influence the storm as it moved closer to the coast. Further out in the Atlantic, a strong Bermuda high was in place, blocking the storm from moving east. The result of these two pressure systems influencing the storm was that the hurricane would be squeezed and accelerated to the north, and not out to sea. The southerly flow that was created by the trough and the high pressure area, pushed the storm forward at an unprecedented rate of around 70 mph.
The Weather Bureau had watched this storm intently for several days, but the forecasters believed that the storm would travel out to sea, well south of New England. For this reason, no warnings were issued, except the usual warnings issued to small craft to stay in port. Could there have been more warning? One junior forecaster for the bureau had predicted the exact track of the storm. A warning could have been issued, but he was ignored by the senior forecasters.
By 10:00 AM on the 21st, a storm warning was posted from Atlantic City, NJ to Block Island, RI. At 12:30 PM this warning was upgraded to a whole gale (55-75 mph), and by 3:40 PM, Providence, RI was finally warned that the storm was going to cross Long Island, NY. At 5:00 PM, the strongest part of the storm hit Providence. Even though the storm center passed to the west of the city, it was believe that the eye was nearly 50 miles wide.
As the storm moved through Rhode Island, it inundated the City of Providence with a storm surge of 13 feet above normal high tide. The timing of the storm couldn't be worse, as high tide was scheduled for 6:52 PM, at the height of the storm. The storm was all but over in Rhode Island by around 7:30 PM. In only 3 ½ hours, the storm left its mark in the form of destruction.
From central Connecticut, the storm traveled north through north through northwestern New England. Boston reported winds of 73 mph, and Blue Hill Observatory in Milton Massachusetts reported sustained winds of 121 mph and gusts to 183 mph. Mount Washington reported winds of 136 mph. However, the effects of the storm were beginning to be felt throughout the six state region. Maine began to feel the effects of this storm in the early evening of the 21st.
Four days prior to the storm, New England received substantial rain. The interior areas were already flooded as dams had broken, bridges and railroads were washed out, and eleven people were killed. This heavy rain also softened the ground so that when the strong winds of the hurricane arrived, it did not take much to overturn them.
In Androscoggin County, Maine, the damage from the storm was incredible. Power was out nearly everywhere, and telephone service was disrupted. The Twin Cities went dark at around 10:30 PM, when two main power lines were severed. The emergency services were kept busy all night as the dispatchers received hundreds of calls. All available police and firemen were mobilized, and assistance was offered by other groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Red Cross, and the Boy Scouts.
In Auburn and Lewiston, at different times throughout the evening, every road out of the Twin Cities were blocked by falling trees. Highway crews worked overtime to clear the roads of debris. This was the case throughout much of the area.
The first damage reported was to a sign in front of a music hall in Lewiston. The sign was blown into the street, where it fell onto a car from Massachusetts that was parked near the curb. Other reports of damage then flowed into the dispatch office of trees crashing down into the streets, into wires, and into houses. There were literally hundreds of trees downed around the area.
Several houses were damaged when trees fell onto them. Some of these included a house on Leavitt Avenue in Lewiston and a house on Maine Street in Auburn. The second house sustained the worst damage as a large tree crashed through the roof and brought down second floor ceilings. Several houses on Court Street were also damaged by falling trees.
The trees were not the only things to cause damage, the wind also took its toll on several homes. On Derosay avenue in Auburn, the roof of a home was blown off and the windows were blown out on one side. In Lewiston, a five foot square skylight cover was blown off the roof of a building near Main Street and Park Street, narrowly missing three people when it crashed to the ground.
At 9:45 PM, the tin roof on a home on Park Street was ripped off "and folded as though it were paper". On Fifth Street, a barn roof was half torn off. In Auburn, a barn on Woodbury Hill Road was blown down and a window on a home on Gill Street was also torn from its casing during the night.
Other houses were damaged in surrounding towns including homes in Minot and Poland. The roof on one summer home in East Otisfield was blown into Thompson Lake. In Richmond, the roof of a barn was blown away, and throughout the area several chimneys were toppled by the winds. In East Otisfield, 2000 trees were uprooted near Thompson Lake, and several summer homes were damaged by falling trees. In nearby Oxford, several people escaped injury when a large tree missed their parked car by only a few feet.
Maine was lucky in the fact that there were no reported deaths due to the storm. Out of the six states, Maine was the only state to escape without any deaths from this storm. However, there were a few injuries. In Lewiston, a man was struck in the head by a falling tree limb, and a Lewiston High School freshman was badly injured as he slipped while clearing debris. In Waterville, another tree limb struck a man causing minor lacerations. In Farmington, a woman suffered a broken arm when the motorcycle she was riding ran into a downed tree. A Farmington High football player was also injured when a tree fell onto his car.
The winds in Portland were reported to be as high as 70 mph. Along the coast, there was very little rain, but the inland areas such as Auburn and Lewiston received occasional rain during the storm. Because of this fact, the Androscoggin River did not rise as high as expected. At Gulf Island Dam, the flow was only 25,000 cfs at 9:00 AM on the 22nd. However, in Bangor, the Penobscot river overflowed its banks and flooded cellars in low-lying areas of the city. Thankfully, there was only minor flooding throughout the state.
In fewer than 12 hours, the storm left a path of destruction covering 40,000 square miles of New York and New England. Records show that the storm killed 600 people, but in a study done by Joe McCarthy called "Hurricane" stated "If an exact count of deaths resulting from the storm could be made, the total would be closer to 700 than 600. Another 1,754 people were injured, and an estimated 63,000 people, many of them homeless were forced to seek emergency help and shelter from the Red Cross and various local relief agencies."
In New England, a total of 4,500 homes were destroyed, 15,139 buildings damaged, 26,000 automobiles were destroyed, 2,605 boats lost, and 3,369 were damaged. If it happened once, could it happen again?
In 1938, New Englanders were totally unprepared for the wrath of a full fledged hurricane. To the people of that era, hurricanes were storms that either occurred in the tropics, or they had no idea what a hurricane was. The last time a storm of this intensity had struck New England was in 1815, long before the oldest residents were born. This also contributed to the people being unprepared.
Today, with the advances in technology, it is highly unlikely that anyone in New England would not know of an approaching storm. However, even with all of the advanced warning capabilities, many people still ignore the possibility of a hurricane, but to a lesser degree than in 1938.
©Wayne Cotterly 2002