It’s been 73 years since a “major” hurricane has hit Connecticut. The September 21, 1938 hurricane was arguably New England’s greatest natural disaster of the 20th century and to this day remains the benchmark for modern New England hurricanes.
Since 1938 we’ve seen our fair share of hurricanes. Hurricane Carol produced category 2 conditions in the state. 1944, Donna, Gloria, and Bob produced category 1 conditions in portions of the state. None have risen to the level of ’38.
What made the ’38 hurricane so powerful is that as the storm was rocketing north (at nearly 60 mph) the jet stream was helping to enhance the storm’s power. While many storms weaken at this latitude the 1938 storm was holding steady. The tropical system was being fueled by extratropical processes which lead to a monster in our own backyard.
The hurricane made landfall in New Haven with a pressure of 946mb. The sustained wind in some parts of the Connecticut shoreline reached 115 m.p.h. There were higher gusts. Compare that to Gloria’s 75 m.p.h. sustained winds or Irene’s 50 m.p.h. sustained winds and you can see what made the ’38 storm so remarkable.
In the past week we’ve heard from utility company executives talk about what a extraordinary storm Irene was. I don’t think Irene was extraordinary at all. The duration of damaging wind gusts and the heavy rain made the damage worse than you’d expect from other 50 m.p.h. tropical storms but let’s be real here. The damage from Irene was not even a tiny fraction of what a major hurricane can do.
Irene’s 5 foot storm surge came at the worst possible time – during an astronomically high tide. How would we be prepared for a 15 foot storm surge like we had in ’38 (and during Carol, for that matter in southeast Connecticut)? Are we?
The 1938 hurricane was exceptional but it wasn’t unprecedented. There are some indications that the 1635 Great Colonial Hurricane was even stronger with a pressure around 938 mb!
When the utility companies testified about their storm response in front of the legislature earlier this week the president and COO of CL&P mentioned that Irene was about the size of Katrina when it made landfall in Connecticut. Yes, the official radius of gale force winds was similar, but we had about 6 hours of marginal tropical storm conditions in Connecticut from Irene. Winds never even approached hurricane force.
If the government, utilities, or citizens think that there is any appropriate comparison between Katrina and Irene they’re truly not prepared for a major hurricane. Hell, they’re not prepared for a category 1 hurricane! 1938 was our Katrina. Irene was barely a blip on the historical radar. I am truly concerned that making Irene out to be some extraordinary freak set of circumstances that crippled the power grid means we aren’t even close to prepared for the day the 1938 hurricane returns. It will.
Irene brought down a couple trees in many neighborhoods. 1938 flattened whole forests. The Guilford Green lost 2 trees during Irene. In ’38 it lost 80 percent of them. The trees still have their leaves this year but after ’38 most trees in the state were completely stripped bare.
If a tropical storm can knock out power for 9 days and destroys dozens of beachfront homes I can only imagine what a major hurricane like 1938 would do.