John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2006 February 1
[This article was writtten before the NYSkies ewbsite was established. 
It is edited to remove typos. Otherwise it is the original text] 
    In the past many months the Science, Industry, Business Library,, 
Manhattan, presented several talks about natural disasters. These 
were potential ones like the Vesuvius volcano, and actual ones, like the 
Indian Ocean tsunami. On 31 January 2006 Ms Scotti presented 'Sudden 
Sea' about the hurricane of 1938. She had her book, of the same title, 
on hand for sale and signing. 
    This hurricane was among the worst natural disasters in American 
history. It exploited speed and surprise as it walloped Long Island 
and New England on 1938 September 21. Many in the audience either were 
in the hurricane directly or knew people who were. These added many 
fascinating tales to that elaborated by Ms Scotti. 
Hurricane tracking
    In the prewar years hurricanes were treated as a peculiarly 
southern US concern, with the vulnerable zone reaching from New 
Orleans to the North Carolina coast. Very few hurricanes made it 
farther north to New York or Long Island. If they did they were by 
then weakened to no worse than ordinary winter storms.
    There was only one station monitoring hurricanes, in Jacksonville, 
Florida, crewed by only two men from the Weather Bureau. They relied 
on radio reports from ships in the middle and equatorial regions of 
the Atlantic Ocean and hand plotted the hurricanes on paper maps. 
    For hurricanes remote from land, ships were the only eyes and ears 
for reporting them. Aviation still offered too little traffic to be 
effective in monitoring the storms.
    The entire emphasis was on protecting the Atlantic coast from the 
Carolinas to Florida and the Gulf coast. There was simply no motive to 
extend hurricane watches farther north. 
    There were in place evacuation and recovery programs for the 
affected coastline, mostly under local or state jurisdiction. No 
national or federal disaster assistance was established. 
    Hurricanes were not named then and went into the record books only 
by the year. Small hurricanes causing only 'normal' damage were 
generally treated as aggravated autumn storms. 
Path of hurricane 1938
    Hurricane 1938 started in the Cape Verde Islands area of the 
Atlantic Ocean, where most hurricanes are born. It was quickly 
recognized as a major cyclone  by September 16th and monitored. It 
headed westward on a familiar path toward the southern United States 
and Caribbean islands. 
    It grew in strength from the late summer heated air and water, All 
activity was passive being that the theory and modeling of hurricanes 
in the 1930s was pretty crude. Reports from sea vessels caused alarm 
enough to send up hurricane warnings for southern Florida. relief and 
rescue crews were moved into Dade and other south Florida counties. 
Coastal towns, including Miami, were boarded up as was standard 
procedure for an approaching hurricane. 
    The storm was a full-blown hurricane, what we today would class as 
category 5, on September 19th when it was about to hit land on 
September 19th. Suddenly, it stopped for an hour or so, then slapped 
north. It never touched Florida except for some heavy rain of no great 
    It speeded north at about the fastest a hurricane was then and now 
clocked, averaging 100 to 120 kilometer per hour. In context, this is 
about the very fastest a car or train of 1938 can move! Due to the 
shape of the US Atlantic coast, hurricane 1938 missed all land from 
Florida to Delaware. It passed Cape Hatteras about 400 kilometers off 
shore. Once it moved beyond the heavily-trafficked sealanes of Florida 
there were only scattered reports of its progress until very near the 
New Jersey-New York sealanes. 
    On September 20th winds picked up on the New Jersey and Long 
    Island coasts to put up small-craft warnings. Nothing was 
or known, about a gigantic hurricane on the way. In the northern 
states there was no established hurricane watch or emergency response 
system. Storms previous to 1938 were localized, caused damage that 
allowed quick recovery. 
The landfall
    Hurricanes typicly use three weapons for their destruction: wind, 
rain, wave. In addition, hurricane 1938 used speed -- 100KPH forward 
motion -- and surprise -- there was no warning or preparation. The 
bulk of damage was caused by the storm surge, walls of ocean water 
that piled up before the wind to heights of several meters. The waves 
hit Long Island in mid afternoon on the 21st of September. 
    This storm wave was superimposed on the normal high tide that 
occurred at the same time. With Long Island being a sea level 
territory, these waves penetrated far inland, clear across the island 
to the glacial moraine. 
    People were caught in their foot steps with no defense. The human 
toll was about 250 on Long Island, 400 in Rhode Island, and 50 in 
other parts of New England. The majority of deaths were from 
collapsing structures or drowning. 
    Property damage was widespread, given the light construction of 
seashore buildings. Power, telephone, telegraph, roads, rails were 
severed, preventing easily communication to other parts of the 
country. The storm wave was so fast and sudden when it slammed onto 
land that it jiggled seismometers  around the world as a small 
    The hurricane struck in the middle of Long Island, missing New 
York City. The western arms of the cyclone brushed the City with heavy 
rain and high seas. Subways, underpasses, cellars, utility chambers, 
sewers, were flooded. Toppled trees and light structural damage was 
reported all over the City. Skyscrapers swayed a meter off plumb at 
their tops. At first, the weather was called a stronger-than-usual 
wind-rain storm, not a colossal hurricane. That was the result of 
interrupted news from the Island and New England. 
Path in New England 
    After crossing Long Island and moving into upland of New England, 
hurricane 1938 lost its power source of heated ocean. It, like any 
other hurricane faded. It continued north into Vermont, Lake 
Champlain, the Adirondacks, Quebec. There a little north of Montreal 
it died out as a vigorous autumn rain-wind event. 
    That's why it is a gross worry if a hurricane after a landfall 
moves back over the sea. It can regain strength and strike with 
renewed vigor at another landfall. 
    Even today we can not with nay confidence predict the future path 
of a hurricane until the final 24 hours at best. By then the die is 
cast for the target areas and defenses better be ready by then. There 
is always the risk of ringing th alarm for too wide an area, due to 
the error fan of the hurricane's future path. 
    Preparing for a hurricane is very costly in dollars, human 
resources, equipment, material. The agony of an emergency response 
agency is to apply the resources judiciously, yet adequately, to cover 
the reasonably expected target area. 
Some geography 
    If you study a US map, you'll notice that the Atlantic coast is 
strongly aligned north-south with only gentle excursions east-west. A 
hurricane track would parallel this coast on its usual coast-hugging 
path. Look closely at New York. Long Island juts straight east-west, 
as if to dare a hurricane to smack it head on. The island is some 150 
kilometers long, presenting a large target for hurricanes on a north 
heading. If it misses Long Island for being too far east, it has a 
second large target, the Rhode Island, southeast Massachusetts coast. 
This includes Hyannis, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket. 
    All these targets are low-lying zones with elevations of mere 
meters above sea level. The only obstruction is the glacial moraine of 
Long Island, which is a few tens of meters in elevation at most. 
    Hence, a hurricane can inflict its damage over a vast geographic 
area, not only along the very sea coast. 
    Long Island as a whole is a protective barrier for Connecticut, 
separated from there by Long Island Sound. Rhode Island and southeast 
Massachusetts extend beyond the east end of Long Island and front the 
sea, and Hurricane, with no barrier to protect them.
    Rhode Island has an other strike against it. It is made of dozens 
of islands in Narragansett Bay. A major storm that jives the Bay can 
devastate the state.
    The soil in all the targets is mostly alluvial left by the 
glaciers in the last ice-age. The Library had a talk earlier in 2005 
'The ice age stopped here' that discussed the shaping of the New York 
region by glaciers. Such loose soil is easily shifted by moving water, 
carrying structures built on it.
Geographic changes
    Hurricane 1938 cut the neck that delimits the Hamptons from 'up-
island'. This is now the Shinnecock Canal. The breach was canalized as 
a 'bonus' of the hurricane to facilitate boat traffic between the 
ocean and Peconic Bay. It has locks to step boats between the 
different tide levels on each end. 
    The storm also cut the Moriches, forming the inlet of today. This 
as stabilized but not canalized, to pass boats between the ocean and 
Great South Bay without having to sail tens of kilometers around Fire 
    Immense volumes of sand were shoved around on the barrier islands, 
    Montauk and Buzzard's Bay. In the one day of the tempest, the 
landscape altered as much as it did before in several decades. By now, 
almost 70 years later, the coastline by normal natural evolution 
pretty much erased the marks of the hurricane.
Some physics
    Ms Scotti didn't quite explain why hurricane 1938 was so 
devastating on eastern Long Island and eastern New England, and 
comparatively mild on the western sides. First, recall that in the 
northern hemisphere a cyclone rotates counterclockwise. As air falls 
into the low pressure eye of the storm, it, by Coriolis effect, 
spirals inward. 
    The very center of the hurricane, the eye, is devoid of storm by 
centrifugal effect. It is a region a few dozen kilometers diameter of 
calm still, even sunny, weather. 
    For a storm at rest on the ground, the wind speed on the west 
flank is the same as that on the east. The wind directions are 
opposite. The west side wind heads south; east, north. 
    As the hurricane procedes north, its ground speed is added to the 
circular speed of its winds. On the east flank, the speeds are both 
north, so they add to increase the wind speed seen by the ground. 
Hurricane 1938 was racing at some 100KPH, so whatever was the circular 
wind speed, the ground on the east side of the eye felt that plus an 
additional 100KPH. 
    On the west side, near New York City, the hurricane speed is still 
north but now it opposes the southward circular wind. Whatever it was, 
it was felt by th ground as being 100KPH less. given that the City 
suffered storm levels of wind anyway, it's anyone's guess what 
happened on the east side. There are no reliable wind speed measures 
from the affected areas.
    For us in the City, if the eye passes to our east, over Long 
Island, we get the lesser harm from wind. Should the eye pass us on 
the west, over New Jersey, we are whumped with extra strength wind. 
News movie 
    A short movie was made of the hurricane in the style of a news 
film with the crisp narration and dramatic scenes. Ms Scotti showed 
it; it's on view at the Library. It presented the storm as the 
greatest natural disaster in American history. Scotti keeps this honor 
in her own book 'Sudden Sea', at sale after her talk. The Library 
handed out a resource guide for the Hurricane that included many 
books, newspaper articles, and the movie. 
    In spite of the lack of dedicated services to recover from 
hurricanes, the affected region sprang back remarkably quickly. 1938 
was still feeling the Depression. There was in place civilian armies 
under the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress 
Administration. These were already busy in civic works, like finishing 
the IND Sixth Avenue subway and the Hayden Planetarium. Being in a 
paramilitary service, they were ordered to rebuild the damaged areas 
after the hurricane. 
   Because the regions were on the sea coast, the normal coast and 
harbor departments of towns and states were called up for rescue and 
relief. It was, however, up to the individual jurisdictions.
    Insurance, such as there was any, covered only a minor part of the 
losses. There were many technical rejections of claims, plus 
stonewalling by the insurance companies.
    The days following hurricane 1938 were sunny autumn days, aiding 
and comforting the recovery work. In time, about when World War II 
started for the United States, most life returned to normal. 
Hurricane study
    It took World War II to kick the United States into thinking 
seriously about hurricanes. With increased shipping in the Atlantic, 
the need for military advantage thru weather, and newly expanded air 
traffic, hurricane study became an integral part of the war effort. 
Monitoring stations were set up at several places on the Atlantic and 
Gulf coasts, some used also to monitor enemy submarines and ships.
    Our present tracking of hurricanes evolved from the wartime 
program. Eventually the range of territory vulnerable to hurricanes 
was expanded to the full Atlantic coast, including the City. 
Greatest natural disaster? 
    This hurricane has been called the greatest natural disaster in 
American history. So have many other storms, floods, earthquakes, 
fires, volcanos. How are disasters ranked? 
    There is no uniform method for assessing the magnitude of a 
disaster. While a one incident may cause more effect under one factor, 
others may excede it for different factors. With no consistency in  
documenting natural disasters and no way to combine the various losses 
into a single figure-of-merit, it's largely a numbers game to claim 
title as 'greatest natural disaster'.
    However, as a local incident, hurricane 1938 is quite likely the 
largest single natural calamity suffered by Long Island and southern 
New England. There were earthquakes and other huge storms long before 
the instant one, the population and development of this region was 
orders lower than in 1938. Hence, the accountable damage was far less 
for those earlier episodes. 
A giant hurricane today
    If such a hurricane hit this area again, the property loss would 
be orders greater, simply because of denser development now and the 
higher price levels. The one and same house that survived the 1938 
storm, costing then $10,000, today could fetch some $500,000. This 
increase is due to the behavior of real estate market, not addition of 
facilities or improvements. This immense increase far surpasses what 
the general inflation would generate. 
    That house in 1938 stood alone with hundreds of meters of open 
country around it. Today it's hemmed in by newer houses filling in 
that land. The combination of dense building and rising prices could 
equate a modest winter nor'easter's dollars of damage with that from 
the entire life of that 1938 hurricane! 
    Human loss for a future storm of comparable strength and size as 
hurricane 1938 would be orders less. With warning and preparations now 
in place, people could remove to safer ground or to shelters well 
before the landfall. Altho both Long Island and Rhode Island with 
their confining geography are tricky to evacuate smoothly and rapidly, 
there seems to be no need to actually displace whole counties. Moving 
people from vulnerable structures to strong-rooms still within the 
target zone and provisioning them for the duration is the safer and 
saner strategy. 
Comparison with Katrina
    With hurricane Katrina still fresh in the mind of the audience, 
many questions related to that episode. Ms Scotti didn't study Katrina 
for her book, which was published in 2003 and focused on hurricane 
1938. She did note that a dominant factor in New Orleans was that the 
town was built behind levees and pumps. The destruction came from 
storm waves and swollen rivers overtopping the levees and swamping the 
    Lack of orderly evacuation left many people in the vulnerable 
parts of the town. After the hurricane passed, the water was trapped 
in New Orleans. It could not drain off naturally like in other coastal 
    The standing water complicated rescue and recovery. like impeding 
fire fighting. Being salt ocean water, it corroded utilities and 
fixtures and killed agriculture. It quickly became a health hazard 
from its unsanitary and putrid condition. 
    Comparison of New York City with the Gulf coast for disaster 
preparation and relief is grossly unfair. Just from geography the two 
regions are hardly equal before a hurricane. This alone, forgetting 
about the social and institutional factors, means that a hurricane 
plan for the City has to be built on its own peculiar considerations 
and not be derived from a Gulf coast scheme. 
My own comments 
    I, of course, did not live thru hurricane 1938. I know several 
friends who did. I related one of their tales about salvaging an 
uprooted house. She lived on Long Island with ample land to place a 
second house. The hurricane tore off a bicycle shop in East Hampton 
and shoved it around the streets. It somehow stayed intact, possibly 
because it skidded bodily before the wind. 
    She arranged to save the store, which itself closed business, and 
have the house moved to her property. There is stands today as her 
'yellow' house, from the color of paint she applied to it. 
    An other friend lived on Fire Island thru a normal winter storm. 
She built her house to be hurricane-proof as an A-fame with the 
sloping side facing the sea. Wind and storm waves would ride up the 
slope but not penetrate or crush the house.
    Down the beach from her was some rich guy's house. It was a drum 
with picture windows around the side. The thing rotated on a motorized 
hub so the man could see the ocean no matter what room he was in. 
    One cold and stormy night, friend was in her house warming by her 
fireplace and reading some cold and stormy night novel. Outside she 
heard cracking gnashing noises from the storm. There was the round 
house, lights flickering, rattling on its hub! Suddenly, it ripped off 
of the hub, flipped on its side, and rolled into Great South Bay! The 
house didn't take kindly to such ersatz forces. It crumpled into a 
heap in the bay. 
    New York hadn't suffered a great hurricane in over a century. Ms 
Scotti mentioned one in 1815. I hazard that weather records were so 
incomplete and scratchy that the storm could be misinterpreted. In any 
case, it seems to me that New York and vicinity actually takes as much 
damage over timescale of a century as that from a monster hurricane. 
    We get the famous, infamous, winter nor'easter storms. This is a 
lashing of rain and wind and waves, combined with freezing 
temperatures. This mix smashes seawalls, floods low areas, topples 
trees, heaves over light buildings, tosses cars, overturns boats, cuts 
power lines, washes out roads and rails, interdicts aviation almost 
yearly. Each instance causes minor damage that can be quickly repaired 
with the next dry spell. 
    On the plus side, there is almost no loss of life in these annual 
episodes. the worse is the occasional accidents like skidding in a car 
off of a rain-slicked road. So the human cost of these routine events 
is small, but the property loss can add up. If all this annual 
property toll is summed, it could equal or excede the loss in the one 
day in a century from a large hurricane. 
    Time erases the living memory of the 1938 event. Only the oldest 
folk today experienced it and most never went thru a similar incident 
since then. The talk at this time, January 2006, invited comparisons 
with hurricane Katrina from September 2005. If it were not for the 
occurrence of Katrina, the audience may well have taken Scotti's 
lecture as an interesting bit of remote history. 
    Ms Scotti closed with the same message that other disaster-theme 
talks closed. It's not IF New York can be attacked by disaster, it's 
WHEN it will be.