73 Years Ago Today We Had “Our Katrina”

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.

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8 thoughts on “73 Years Ago Today We Had “Our Katrina”

    • Absolutely. It’s incredible to think of the amount of destruction one storm was able to do. Of even greater concern to me is the fact the state, as a whole, is more forested in 2011 than it was in 1938.

  1. Far more forested! One hundred years ago, we were only between 20 and 30% forested, the remainder was cleared land. As farming has moved out West, the percentages have flipped, and I believe about 70% of our landmass is forest. A repeat of ’38 would have catastrophic consequences indeed.

    • Yes, I agree. At the turn of the century we were about 20% forested and I think it’s about 60% now. I think it’s fair to assume that by 1938 a lot of the farm land was being reclaimed by trees so maybe by then we were at 30-35%? Either way you’re right, Andrew, the magnitude of the disaster that would occur is hard to comprehend.

  2. How do you go about being able to estimate the pressure in a storm from 1635? Are there original source journals describing the damage, or is there something more scientific? I’m guessing the latter… thanks!

  3. Carol was not a “major” hurricane in Connecticut. Re-analysis by Chris Landsea at the National Hurricane Center shows that Carol produced category 2 winds in Connecticut – not 3. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, however, Carol will remain a “major” hurricane. I’ve posted more information here https://ryanhanrahan.wordpress.com/connecticut-hurricanes-since-1850-2/

    Also about Irene I have not seen anywhere close to sustained 65mph winds in Long Island Sound or on the Connecticut shoreline (or even Long Island or buoys south of LI). Every buoy, mesonet, and ASOS station was well short of that and most didn’t come close to even 50mph sustained winds. The point of the post was that the storm was able to do a number on the power infrastructure with only 50 mph sustained winds at the worst.

    The winds from Gloria were sustained at tropical storm force for about 3 1/2 or 4 hours according to observations at Bridgeport and Islip. I mentioned many times leading up to and during the storm that the duration of winds (and the antecedent wet conditions… remember Gloria produced little rain) would result in damage a bit worse than you would expect from a tropical storm of the same strength in CT.

  4. As far as the storm surge comment you are incorrect. Several storms have produced surge values as high the difference was with Irene the maximum surge occurred at high tide (which was already high). I hashed out many of those details in some of my late August posts. December 1992 still produced higher tide levels in western parts of the Sound (Irene was worse east of New Haven, however).

  5. The reanalysis by Landsea is by far the most expansive and detailed done to date. I see no reason to disagree with his assessment that the storm was not a major hurricane in CT. I have seen no evidence to the contrary but you are totally correct that Carol was the second strongest storm behind 1938.

    As for the surge I think you’re forgetting the importance of timing of the worst surge. Gloria had “surge” values that were similar (or even a bit higher) than Irene but arriving at low tide that surge only produced modest damage at best. December 1992 was extremely destructive west of New Haven… destroying nearly as many homes as Irene. In some town 1992 was worse but as you mentioned east of New Haven the damage from Irene was worse. East Haven clearly was hit harder by Irene but there were destroyed home in 1992.

    I mentioned through the storm and leading up to the storm that the duration of winds would be impressive and longer than most storms we experience… not sure what your argument is here.

    As for 1938 forward speed yes I have seen evidence that though the storm was moving nearly 70 mph off the Delmarva it slowed down as it moved over CT.

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