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75 Years Ago: The Astonishing Power of the Great Hurricane of 1938 (Part 1)

Ground Zero of the Great Hurricane of 1938 was the border of Connecticut and Rhode Island at Watch Hill. A storm-surge wave estimated to be nearly 50 feet in height obliterated 40 homes on Napatree Point.

Ground Zero of the Hurricane of 1938. Note the home made famous recently when it was bought by Taylor Swift. Credit: U.S. Government Archives
Ground Zero of the Hurricane of 1938. Note the home made famous recently when it was bought by Taylor Swift. Credit: U.S. Government Archives

Born in the far eastern Atlantic near the Cape Verde Islands on Sept. 4, 1938, the Great Hurricane of 1938 would prove to be the single-worst natural disaster in Connecticut’s history. The intense storm reached Category 5 status on the Saffir-Simpson Scale off the northeast coast of Florida and struck New England as a Category 3 on Sept. 21, 1938 — 75 years ago this week. 

However, the forward speed of the hurricane approached 70 mph as it roared up the East Coast toward Long Island Sound, enhancing the strength of its winds, especially in the northeast section of the hurricane. As a result, sustained winds reached speeds of 120 mph and wind gusts in some areas approached 200 mph—a level regarded as “catastrophic.”

The hurricane’s forward speed was so fast that the storm was nicknamed “The Long Island Express.” The eyewall of the hurricane passed through Connecticut just east of New Haven. The side of the hurricane to the right (or eastern side) of the eye is the most intense. Therefore, the worst effects of the storm were felt from New London east to Cape Cod. The peak storm surge actually occurred on the Connecticut-Rhode Island border in the Stonington-Watch Hill area.

The gallery photo shows an aerial view of the Watch Hill-Stonington area. This photo was taken from a U.S. Army Air Corps plane stationed at Mitchel Field on Long Island on Sept. 22, 1938 — the day after the hurricane struck. Please note the location of Napatree Point in the photo, as the peak of the storm surge struck here. The surge was essentially a wind-induced tsunami that reached a height estimated by some to be 50 feet! That 50-foot wave rolled over Napatree Point and obliterated the 40 houses that once existed there on Fort Road. (Fort Road bisected Napatree, dead-ending at Fort Mansfield at the extreme western end of Napatree.)

Note that Napatree provides the land barrier from the ocean that forms Watch Hill Harbor. The photo shows a breach in that barrier at the eastern end of Napatree, closer to the famous carousel located in the downtown area on Bay Street. The storm surge created that breach, which was soon filled in again with sand and dirt to prevent Napatree from becoming an island. The only evidence that 40 homes once existed on Napatree is the presence of their foundations, now covered by vegetation. Nobody has been allowed to build a home there since 1938. Note the second picture in the gallery above that shows a “before and after” of Napatree Point. The difference is astonishing.

The aerial view of Watch Hill shows the approximate location of the lighthouse at Watch Hill on the far left of the photo. First constructed in 1808, the lighthouse at Watch Hill managed to survive the storm surge but was flooded with water.

Note the location of the largest house in the center of the photo. Located about 65 feet above East Beach, the house on the bluff survived the surge. That house was purchased last spring by popular singer Taylor Swift for $17 million.

Writer R.A. Scotti’s book Sudden Sea (2005) gives a dramatic account of a number of the effects of the hurricane on a number of individuals. One of the most poignant stories is that of a New London woman who was in her house on Fort Road. As the water rose and the winds intensified, she retreated to the attic of the house. When the storm surge obliterated her house, she and her children rode the crest of that monster wave in her detached attic, as if they were on a giant makeshift surfboard. They came to a stop, finally, two miles inland in a corn field in Stonington, as the wave finally dissipated. Can you imagine?

(Next week: Part 2 of the Hurricane of 1938)

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