Hurricane Alex, 1938, And All That
By Paul Homewood
Apparently Hurricane Alex is being blamed for the half an inch of snow we had here last night! I kid you not.
There was actually an interesting comment from the Telegraph’s Peter Stanford today (sorry Peter, I did not mean it, honest!). He says that the sea surface temperatures where Alex formed were not unusually warm, but the big difference was that the air higher up was unusually cold, thus drawing up the warm moist air and fuelling the hurricane.
He gives no evidence for this, but it makes sense given the fact that the jet stream has been much further south than “usual” recently.
As the Met Office told us, Alex is reckoned to be the first January hurricane since 1955. Prior to that there was one in 1938, which just happens to the same year that the Great New England Hurricane, or Long Island Express brought so much death and devastation in September.
That hurricane reached Cat 5 status, just east of the Bahamas, and was still a Cat 3 when it made landfall on Long Island.
Wikipedia have this account of the impact:
The majority of the storm damage was from storm surge and wind. Damage was estimated at $308 million, (the equivalent of $4.8 billion adjusted for inflation in 2011 dollars), making it among the most costly hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland. It is estimated that if an identical hurricane struck in 2005 it would have caused $39.2 billion (2005 dollars) in damage, due to changes in population and infrastructure.
Approximately 600 people died in the storm in New England, most in Rhode Island, and up to 100 people elsewhere in the path of the storm. An additional 708 people were reported injured.
In total, 4,500 cottages, farms, and other homes were reported destroyed. An additional 25,000 homes were damaged. Other damages included 26,000 automobiles destroyed and 20,000 electrical poles toppled. The hurricane also devastated the forests of the Northeast, knocking down an estimated 2 billion trees in New York and New England. Freshwater flooding was minimal, however, as the quick passage of the storm decreased local rainfall totals, with only a few small areas receiving over 10 inches (250 mm).
Over 35% of New England’s total forest area was affected. In all, over 2.7 billion board feet of trees fell because of the storm. 1.6 billion board feet of the trees were salvaged. The Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA) was established to deal with the extreme fire hazard that the fallen timber had created. In many locations, roads from the fallen tree removal were visible decades later and in some cases, became trails still used today. The New Haven Railroad from New Haven to Providence was particularly hard hit, as countless bridges along the Shore Line were destroyed or flooded, severing rail connections to badly affected cities (such as Westerly, Rhode Island) in the process. More than 50 people perished on Long Island in the storm’s wake. All the shore lines were very vulnerable to the high winds and flooding waves, and anyone who was along or near the shores was directly in harm’s way. Due to the lack of technology back in 1938, Long Island residents were not warned of the hurricane’s arrival, leaving little to no time to prepare or evacuate. Long Island was struck first, before New England, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Quebec, earning the storm the nickname the "Long Island Express. "The winds reached up to 150 mph with waves surging to around 25–35 feet high. Ten new inlets were created on eastern Long Island. The surge rearranged the sand at the Cedar Point Lighthouse so that the island became connected to what is now Cedar Point County Park. The surging water created the present-day Shinnecock Inlet by carving out a large section of barrier island separating Shinnecock Bay from the Atlantic. The storm toppled the landmark steeple of the tallest building in Sag Harbor, the Old Whaler’s Church. The steeple has not been rebuilt. Wading River suffered substantial damage. In Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island, the storm blew down the movie theater located on Front Street. The fishing industry was destroyed, as was half of the apple crop.
The hurricane also played an interesting role in the century’s old Yale–Harvard rivalry. At the time, both schools had 2,000+ acre forests managed by their forestry departments. These forests were wiped out by the hurricane, thus rendering them useless for having a timber management program. However, Yale had a backup forest at Great Mountain in northwestern Connecticut which was spared from the totality of the damages. Hence, they were able to keep their forestry program running, which maintains operation today. Meanwhile, Harvard’s program was reduced to a small program and no longer a major player in the forestry game.
Scott Mandia has this poignant summary:
September 21, 1938.
That morning a New York Times editorial entitled "Hurricane" concluded, "Every year an average of three such whirlwinds sweep the tropical North Atlantic between June and November. In 1933, there was an all-time record of twenty. If New York and the rest of the world have been so well informed about the cyclone, it is because of an admirable organized meteorological service" (Allen, 1976).
Except for Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau who predicted the storm but was overruled by the chief forecaster, the Weather Bureau experts and the general public never saw it coming. Later that day, the greatest weather disaster ever to hit Long Island and New England struck in the form of a category 3 hurricane. Long Island, New York and New England were changed forever by the Long Island Express.
The immediate effect of this powerful hurricane was to decimate many Long Island communities in terms of human and economic losses, however, the long term effects linger today. The ’38 Hurricane created the Shinnecock Inlet and widened Moriches Inlet which, to this day, are changing the landscape of the south shore due to their influence on the natural littoral sand transport. History has shown that these powerful storms are rare but do in fact occur with long-term frequency. Case studies have shown that the next time a storm like the Long Island Express roars through, it might be the greatest disaster in U.S. history.
Frightening enough, but NOAA experts believe that the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 was even stronger. According to Brain Jarvinen of the National Hurricane Center, "this was probably the most intense hurricane in New England history”.
Meanwhile other scientists, such as Jeffery Donnelly, have evidence of an even more powerful hurricane sometime between AD 1278 and 1438.
But still, let’s get overexcited about Hurricane Alex!!