Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Great Hurricane of 1938

Hurricane 1938
Originally uploaded by UncoveringWestport
On this day in 1938, an unnamed storm blasted through the northeast without warning. In retrospect, it became known as the Great Hurricane of 1938, or the Long Island Express. Over 600 people died because of the storm, and it caused massive damage. It's become routine in this area (i.e., the NJ-tristate-midAtlantic area) to say, "We're overdue for a big storm," but if you read Everett S. Allen's A Wind to Shake the World, and look at the wake of recent hurricanes such as Ike (never mind Katrina), you'll probably wind up begging providence not to send one up this way. At least, I do. On one hand, we have much better advance warning systems in place today. On the other hand, I'm sure many more people live in the places ravaged by the 1938 hurricane today than did then.

When I realized that we were going to see the 70th anniversary of the 1938 storm this year, I started poking around in search of NJ bird records that might be related to it. I didn't have much luck; there were fewer observers then and the storm didn't ramp up to full intensity until it got north of NJ. What storm-related records there were tended to come from other states. The Auk had a good roundup of them (Allen et al. 1939).

But, as is often the case, NJ had a special wrinkle to add to the story. Well after the hurricane had passed and was wreaking havoc on New England, a series of huge waves came ashore in coastal NJ. Although it would seem that these waves were likely associated with the hurricane, it has also been hypothesized that the waves were actually tsunamis. Check out NOAA's page on Tidal Waves and Other Extreme Waves for more information.

The photo that illustrates this post comes from the Westport Historical Society in Westport, Massachusetts, which has posted a collection of hurricane photos on Flickr. An evocative post about the storm and its memory long after the fact comes from

Allen, Glover M. 1939. Hurricane aftermath. Auk 176-179. PDF here

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