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Force of Nature
The "Great Hurricane" of 1938

  Click for larger view
Waves striking a seawall give the appearance of geysers erupting along the New England coast during the 1938 Hurricane. Courtesy NOAA (11)
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Mount Holyoke College Campus. Miss Dirtrich and her crushed car after the 'Great Hurricane' of 1938. Courtesy MHC Archives. (12)

"On September 21,1938, the fastest hurricane on record caught the Northeast by surprise and left a wake of death and destruction across seven states. Traveling at record speeds, the storm raced up the Atlantic coast, reaching New York and New England ahead of hurricane warnings and striking with such intensity that seismographs in Alaska registered the impact. Winds clocked at 186 miles per hour stripped cars of their paint. Walls of water fifty feet high swept homes and entire families out to sea." Sudden Sea - the Great Hurricane of 1938 (14)

Path - The "Great Hurricane" also known as the "Long Island Express" ripped through Long Island and New England on September 21st, 1938. On that Wednesday, there was little warning to residents that one of America's most powerful hurricanes ever was about to wreck havoc with their lives. It had followed the typical path west across the Atlantic, skimmed above the Caribbean and looked posed to hit Florida on the 20th. However, on September 19th the then category 5 hurricane turned suddenly to the north and the sunshine state residents breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone now expected the storm to move harmlessly back out to sea. The lone suggestion by a junior meterologist that New England should be warned of possible landfall was ignored. (more information on the path of the hurricane)

Landfall - A mere two hours after "gale" warnings had, at long last, been issued, the hurricane made landfall at Long island. Residents watched what they thought was a a twenty five to forty foot fog bank approach from the south. It was, in fact, the storm surge - a wall of water that is associated with the strong winds and low pressure near the center of the storm. Waves, 30 feet or more, exascerbated the devastation wrecked by the storm surge. Earthquake seismographs in Sitka, Alaska registered the impact of landfall in Long Island and testify to the power of the storm.

Prospect Hill - Officially 564 deaths are attribtued to the hurricane although many reports contain estiamtes closer to 700. Approximately 1,700 additional persons were injured and 63,000 made homeless. It is unknown whether Mt. Holyoke College received any warning of the hurricane before it hit but fortunately no lives were lost. We did, however, suffer heavy damage on the beloved Prospect Hill. The vast majority of the trees on the hill were only 50-60yrs old having been planted in the 1880's and '90s as part of the Olmstead Plan of 1900 for the College. Over 90% or 1,200 trees on the hill were lost in the hurricane. Replanting of the tree begun immedaitely but was interupted by the war effort on campus and did not resume until 1946.

Though in years before and after, New England and thus our campus have been hit by other storms and hurricanes, none have had the destructive power of this storm that has been ranked the 6th costliest storm in US history - the "Great Hurricane" of 1938.


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This page was created by Alana Belcon FP'04 in History 283, Fall Semester 2003 -