There was no radar. There was no satellite imagery. There were no offshore buoys. And so New England and its neighbors were given the surprise of a lifetime on Sept 21. 2013.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of one of the hardest-hitting hurricanes this part of the country has ever seen, at a time when it was easier to predict the score of a ballgame than it was the weather.
In 1938, the United States Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) put its faith in a Brazilian ship captain as he radioed that a large storm was moving east of Puerto Rico, heading toward the Florida coast.
This was the first and only warning of what was soon to come.
But what was surely destined for the southeastern coast suddenly changed direction as the massive tropical storm headed north, traveling parallel to the Eastern Seaboard.
Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau at the time, was sure that the hurricane was heading for the Northeast, but he was overruled by senior meteorologists. The official forecast was set for cloudy skies and gusty conditions — but no hurricane, according to the public broadcasting service.
By the time the U.S. Weather Bureau learned that the Category 3 storm was on a collision course with Long Island on the afternoon of Sept. 21, it was too late for a warning.
Having no advanced meteorological technology, a timely warning was near impossible for the people of New England. And the storm moved quickly, plowing up the coast at a record-breaking 60 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
“These people had no time to prepare and many just went about their day as if it were any other,” said Alan Rumrill, executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County.
Rumrill said many people were out and about when the storm initially hit and this factored into the high number of fatalities.
Weather stations in Long Island marked winds at 150 mph and waves that were over 25 feet. Hundreds of beach homes were destroyed and more than 100 deaths were recorded on Long Island alone.
In Massachusetts, more than 90 people were killed and wind gusts reached 186 mph, the highest recorded hurricane surface wind, to date, in the United States.
In New Hampshire, 13 people were killed and more than $22 million in damage was recorded, the equivalent to billions today.
New England, as well as its neighbors, was devastated.
But what if the Northeast had been given a chance?
Just before the turn of the 20th century, formal installation of a national hurricane warning system was initiated by the U.S. Weather Bureau, according to the National Hurricane center.
Early information was provided through staffed weather stations in the West Indies, Cuba and Mexico.
These stations relayed local tropical weather information throughout hurricane season. Although data gathered at these locations provided useful information about tropical cyclone intensity, stations did not provide enough information to determine where storms might head next.
As ships became equipped with radios, ships’ captains became actively involved in providing the U.S. Weather Bureau with tropical cyclone observations in real time. But they could report only where the storms were, not where they might head next.
As of 2013, tracking hurricanes now includes a wide variety of methods.
“Presently, we have a host of numerical forecast models, as well as a wide variety of technology, that not only helps us to forecast the path but also intensity potential with respect to wind speeds, rainfall and flooding and even embedded tornado probability,” said Rich Cianflone, a professional meteorologist.
Cianflone said that today, the observation tools are most important and in 1938, if the technology had existed, people would have had earlier warning and been able to take steps to minimize the danger and the damage.
We now have satellites to monitor weather conditions, allowing meteorologists to gather an abundance of information that is critical in the estimation of a hurricane’s strength and predicted path. Doppler radar can detect rain associated with tropical cyclones.
The Aircraft Operations Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, has recently launched one of many “Hurricane Hunters,” which are reconnaissance aircraft sent directly into storm centers to gather valuable data.
All of these advanced pieces of equipment and technology allow those soon to be affected by a hurricane to be warned and to prepare, both luxuries that New England residents of 1938 did not have.
Nevertheless, anticipated or not, it was a catastrophic storm. And, scary though it might seem, if that storm arrived on our doorstep today, the potential loss of life and property could be even worse.
“If the storm were to come today, the damage would be much worse,” said Rumrill. “There are more buildings and more people, which means more for the storm to ruin.
According to a study done by AIR Worldwide, if the 1938 storm were to hit us today, the cost of the damage would be around $100 billion, topped only by Katrina’s $110 billion in 2005.
On Long Island, the population has more than quintupled since 1938, from about 550,000 to almost 3 million. Once empty oceanfront property has been developed into homes for millionaires and the value of that land has skyrocketed. Everyone wants to be close to the water — except when there’s a storm brewing.
Long Island traffic, already dreadful on summer weekends, would be epic in the hours before a hurricane. It would be difficult if not impossible to evacuate many coastal communities. Fire Island, a resort community with 50,000 residents on summer weekends, is connected to the mainland only by ferry. Long Beach, which lies on a barrier island just east of New York City, is connected to the mainland by just three bridges.
The death toll would be determined largely by the number of people willing to evacuate their homes, and there are always some who are determined to ride it out, whatever federal and local emergency management agencies tell them.
Technology can only get us so far. We can track hurricanes, keep tabs on their whereabouts, and even predict landfall. But at the end of the day we will never be able to change a storm’s strength and we will never be able to control what those in its path will choose to do.
Doppler radar, satellite images and hundreds of offshore buoys will never have the ability to control what nature is always sure to bring — or how humans will react to it.