75 years later: Kevin shares history of powerful 1938 hurricane


BOSTON (MyFoxBoston.com) – It has been 75 years since one of the strongest hurricanes to reach Southern New England slammed into the coast of Connecticut.
It was a Category 3 storm with winds more than 100 miles per hour that caused damage into Canada. Some of the worst effects were felt in Southeast New England.
Years later, much has changed and the danger grows. Before satellites were keeping watch of our oceans, hurricanes would form without anyone knowing.
In Sept. 1938, there were reports of a hurricane in the Atlantic, but no one knew exactly when it would hit.
"Sure, they did know there was a hurricane out there, but most of them tend to – as they get to our area – turn northeast and miss us," said Hayden Frank, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. "That's the general rule for hurricanes…but there were some unique circumstances: A cold front was approaching and allowed this hurricane to accelerate to more than 50 miles per hour."
As with any hurricane, winds were ferocious.
"To give you some estimation, Irene knocked down one to two percent of trees. It's estimated that a hurricane of the 1938-type-magnitude would knock down 70-percent to 80-percent of the trees," said Frank.
The storm surge was particularly noteworthy, especially in Providence, RI. When it happens at high tide, the flooding worsens.
But what if the ocean was already higher before the storm and before high tide?
It already is, compared to 1938, by about a foot. Some say it could get worse.
"So that makes you one foot higher. When you get the storm surge there's some estimations that say we may get another one to two feet over the next 50 to 100 years.  So now you're talking about three feet. If that comes into play, then you have significant issues," Frank explained.
"If that was even two and a half feet of sea level rise you could go over the top of the Charles river dam, which means you could flood the Back Bay and Cambridge and those are areas that the dam was built to protect," said Ellen Douglas, Ph.D UMass Boston.
Climatologists tell us that as we add greenhouse gasses to the air, the earth will warm and so will the ocean. When the water warms, it expands. Every bit of sea level rise makes flooding more likely.
"A lot of the uncertainty with respect to where sea level rise is going and how high it will be has to do with our behavior and how much fossil fuels we continue to burn," said Douglas.
Debate continues about climate change and hurricanes, but we had a serious reminder of the consequences just about a year ago.
"Sandy had a 4.6 foot storm surge, which is almost five feet, which is almost the 100 year storm surge that we've established. But it came at low tide so it was mostly wave action," said Douglas. "But if it had come six hours later it at high tide it would have flooded South Boston, the Financial District, all those areas so it would have been a very different story… Boston realized we dodged the bullet that time."
Boston was mostly spared in 1938 as well. Flooding was not a problem. On a slightly different path, that would change.
"What sandy showed us is if a storm like Sandy goes 200 miles further North, and then curved West, you could get a sustained period of very strong East winds win the Boston-area. And that could result in a very significant storm," said Frank.
That was before the anticipated sea level rise. So the risk continues to rise, with the water.
"They are rare but they will happen again. There's no question," said Frank. "Now, whether that Category 3 Hurricane is next year, five years from now or 25 years from now, we don't know. But we know we have to be prepared."
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