Irene Evokes Great Hurricane of 1938 That Left 500 Dead in U.S. Northeast

The projected path of Hurricane Irene evokes a 1938 storm that left more than 500 dead after crossing Long Island, destroying the village of Montauk and battering Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was one of the most destructive and powerful ever to strike the region, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It made landfall in Milford, Connecticut, about 75 miles north of New York City, on Sept. 21, producing peak gusts of 186 miles per hour and tides as high as 25 feet on Cape Cod, the federal agency said on its website.

“The ‘38 hurricane was the fastest hurricane ever measured,” said Dave Samuel, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

Hurricane Irene, the strongest Atlantic storm to threaten the U.S. since 2005, is forecast to pass near North Carolina this weekend and slam into New England next week. Hurricane watches are in force for the North Carolina coast as 115 miles- per-hour (185 kilometers per hour) winds rip through the Bahamas, damaging homes, felling trees and triggering flooding, according to the country’s Emergency Management Agency.

Katharine Hepburn

In addition to recalling the 1938 storm, Irene is projected to take a path similar to Hurricane Gloria’s in 1985, which caused an estimated $1 billion in damages in today’s dollars, according to Chris Hyde, a meteorologist at MDA EarthSat Weather in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The northeastern portion of Irene’s march also mirrors Hurricane Donna in 1960, which killed 148 people, according to the Weather Underground website.

New England’s Great Hurricane was blamed for the destruction of Katharine Hepburn’s family beach home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, according to her autobiography, “Me: Stories of My Life.”

The actress, who died in 2003, wrote that she, her mother, brother and servants narrowly escaped before their house was lifted off its foundations and washed away. Her 1932-1933 best actress Oscar was lost in the storm but later found intact, she said.

The hurricane formed in the Cape Verde Islands off Africa in early September, initially threatening the Florida coast before traveling north. It was later estimated that by Sept. 20 it had reached Category 5 status, which at 155 miles per hour is the most intense on the Saffir-Simpson scale. It then weakened the next day to Category 3, crossing New York’s Long Island before making landfall in the afternoon.

It didn’t weaken as most hurricanes do as they move over colder waters, Samuel said. Cold water typically saps hurricanes’ strength, while wind shear can tear at their structure further diminishing them, he said.

Northward Sweep

“It got caught in a very powerful trough in the Jet Stream that swept it northward very quickly,” said Jack Beven, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

In Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, a surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs, NOAA said. Providence, the state’s capital, saw downtown submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet while sections of Falmouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts, were also under water.

The hurricane left 564 dead and at least 1,700 injured along with the destruction of 2,605 fishing vessels, according to NOAA. Among the victims were seven children who were attempting to escape a school bus that had stalled in Jamestown, Rhode Island, according to a local press account.

The storm system also produced rainfall of as much as 17 inches across most of the Connecticut River Valley, resulting in severe flooding across sections of the state and Massachusetts. Property losses were estimated at $4.7 billion in today’s dollars, according to the Boston Globe.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael McDonald in Boston at mmcdonald10@bloomberg.net; Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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