On the Great and Terrible Hurricane of 1938
And the Lone Forecaster Who Predicted Its Deadly Path
It had been exceptionally rainy during the summer of 1938 in the Northeast, but Wednesday, September 21 was shaping up to be a nice reprieve, starting out warm and mostly sunny, promising to be a beautiful day. Despite the pleasing weather, however, the news was full of storm clouds on the horizon. A little more than a week earlier, announcers at CBS Radio had set the stage for the German chancellor’s address to a Nazi rally in Nuremberg by telling their listeners, “The entire civilized world is anxiously awaiting the speech of Adolf Hitler, whose single word may plunge all of Europe into another World War.”
In the ensuing days, the United States and the rest of the world got healthy doses of Hitler’s vitriol and his ruthless determination to take back the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia with three million ethnic Germans that had been stripped from Austria by the Treaty of Saint-Germain at the end of World War I. Readers of the New York Times on September 21 were given page after page of unnerving reports and commentary about Hitler’s aggressive stance and his ultimatum that Czechoslovakia turn over the region, or else he would take it by force. Czechoslovakia’s purported allies, France and England, were actively debating whether to abandon their pledge to defend Czechoslovakia against foreign aggression—in this case from Germany—and later that day they did just that, siding with Hitler. This move paved the way for the Munich Agreement on September 30, in which England and France essentially gave the Sudetenland to Germany. Lauding the agreement, English prime minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed that it had achieved “peace for our time,” a naïve boast that proved to be grossly untrue.
After wading through 26 pages of international and domestic news in the September 21 issue of the New York Times, readers in New York and New England would have seen, nearly hidden in the bottom left-hand corner of page 27, a short article on an approaching hurricane, which had been born a few weeks earlier in Africa. On September 4, a French weather observer at the Bilma oasis in northeastern Niger noted a slight disturbance in the atmosphere, perhaps as mundane as shifting winds or a thunderstorm. Although no one realized it at the time, that disturbance became an easterly wave that morphed into a Cape Verde–type hurricane, which marched across the Atlantic, arousing the attention of meteorologist Grady Norton.
Norton had joined the US Weather Bureau in 1915. His early assignments focused on general forecasting, but he switched to hurricanes after an affecting encounter in late September 1928. On the way to visiting relatives in Florida, he stopped to watch as men shoveled dirt into a trench filled with the decomposing bodies of people killed by the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane. He overheard a woman behind him say, “There’s something wrong with them forecasters or Joe would have got away in time.” Norton later recalled, “I took what that poor woman said to heart, and I knew then and there that what I wanted to do most in life was to prevent such senseless destruction.”
Norton got his big chance when he became chief hurricane forecaster at the bureau’s Jacksonville office just a few months before the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The tragic outcome of that devastating storm, especially the great loss of life, only increased his determination to improve forecasts. So when he heard via radio on September 16, 1938, that a Brazilian steamer, the SS Alegrete, had reported a very low barometric reading and hurricane-force winds about 1,000 miles northeast of the Leeward Islands, Norton sprang into action, focusing all his attention on the approaching storm.
In subsequent days, additional reports from ships and land-based stations showed the hurricane to be advancing at 20 mph, heading toward the Bahamas and Florida. On the morning of September 19, Norton ordered storm warnings along the Florida coast, from Jacksonville to Key West, and he urged Floridians to make initial preparations for a possible strike. By late that afternoon, however, new data gave cause for optimism. Barometric readings on the Bahamas were hardly dropping at all, indicating to Norton that the hurricane was curving toward the northeast. The following day, Norton’s suspicions were confirmed. The hurricane would miss Florida, but the danger wasn’t over yet; reports and barometric readings indicated that the hurricane was heading toward Cape Hatteras. Norton ordered storm warnings as far north as Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he advised caution for all vessels in the storm’s path, recommending, in particular, that small craft from Charleston to the Virginia Capes remain in port. The fact that many vessels heeded the warning was a mixed blessing, since then there were virtually no ships at sea to provide the bureau with updates on the storm’s path and behavior.
As the hurricane moved up the coast, tracking responsibility shifted from the Jacksonville office to Washington, DC, where a 30-year veteran of the bureau named Charles Mitchell was the chief forecaster. Looking at the sparse data, Mitchell concluded that the storm would do what Cape Verdean hurricanes almost always did—namely, continue curving around the high-pressure dome in the North Atlantic called the Bermuda High, which is typically located in the western North Atlantic near Bermuda. Since the Bermuda High rotates in a clockwise direction, it tends to steer hurricanes north, parallel to the coast, and then east as they skirt the edge of the high, meaning that they ultimately veer away from the mainland into the open ocean. Mitchell also assumed that as the hurricane traveled farther north, it would rapidly weaken over the colder ocean waters, transitioning from a hurricane to a gale before dying out in the frigid North Atlantic.
Every meteorologist in the office but one agreed with the chief. Charles H. Pierce, a talented 28-year-old junior forecaster who had been with the bureau for less than a year, looked at the same data and came to a radically different conclusion. He determined that since the Bermuda High was much farther north than usual, it would pull the hurricane in a more northerly direction, meaning that the storm would likely come ashore in the vicinity of New York and southern New England. He assumed that the strong winds from the south measured in the DC area were indicative of similar winds throughout the region, which would give the hurricane an added boost of speed as it traveled north. Pierce also noted that there was a strong cold front, or trough of low pressure, farther inland in the upper atmosphere, which, he argued, created a pathway between it and the Bermuda High that was ideal for rapid movement of the storm up the coast, especially since that pathway was already flooded with moist, warm, tropical air.
Since Mitchell was the chief forecaster, he had the final say on advisories. As a result, the bureau’s official forecast late on Tuesday, September 20, told the public that the storm would be heading away from land. The New York Times article on September 21 echoed Mitchell’s confidence in the hurricane’s track, reporting that the storm would weaken as it sailed off into the North Atlantic. It might cause gale-force winds and high surf later in the afternoon or evening along portions of the coast, but those effects were not of great concern.
Readers of the Times article were certainly not surprised by the forecasted trajectory. It was conventional wisdom among northeasterners that hurricanes menaced the southeastern and Gulf coasts of the country, not their part of the world. While hurricanes had, of course, struck Long Island and New England before, the last one that had even come close had been 35 years earlier, in 1903, and that storm had been relatively minor. Before that, one had to go back to the mid-19th century before finding a major hurricane that had hit so far north. Few people in the Northeast had lived through or remembered the 1903 hurricane, and fewer still knew anything about the region’s earlier history with such storms.
On the morning of September 21, Pierce grew more concerned about the hurricane. One of the only ships to report on the storm after Norton issued his warning on September 19 was a British luxury liner, the RMS Carinthia. In the early-morning hours of September 21, the Carinthia was a few hundred miles northeast of Florida, caught in the thick of the hurricane and furiously rolling in the mountainous seas. Its upscale passengers were hanging on for dear life, barely able to stand, surrounded by rivers of their own vomit. While desperately trying to keep the ship from capsizing, the captain radioed in an extremely low barometric reading of 27.85. Just an hour or so later, the ship exited the hurricane, still intact but seriously damaged. The captain’s report convinced Pierce that the hurricane was still extremely powerful and would remain so for quite a while.
This new data from the Carinthia, combined with other reports filtering in from coastal stations, caused Mitchell to alter the official forecast slightly. In its 2 pm advisory on September 21, the bureau said that the storm would come ashore late in the afternoon or early that evening in the vicinity of Long Island and Connecticut, but still as only a gale, not a hurricane. That forecast, unfortunately, was terribly wrong.
As Pierce alone had predicted, the still powerful hurricane zoomed north, making a beeline for the coast. It came ashore in Suffolk County, Long Island, and then blasted into southern New England as a Category 3 hurricane, packing sustained winds of up to 120 mph. Even Pierce must have been shocked at how fast the hurricane approached. It raced over the open ocean at the blistering speed of 50 to 60 mph, rather than the 20 to 30 mph that is more typical of Cape Verdean hurricanes in the North Atlantic. The Great Hurricane of 1938 moved so fast that journalists dubbed it “The Long Island Express.”
The disagreement between Mitchell and Pierce is often presented as high drama, painting Mitchell as a villain. It pits the older, arrogant forecaster, mired in the ways of the past, against a brash, younger meteorologist who was schooled in newer methods of forecasting, and who tried in vain to persuade his superior to see the error of his ways. As the portrayal usually goes, Mitchell imperiously dismissed Pierce’s concerns, essentially telling him to stay in his lane and leave the forecasting to the men with decades of experience. But, as Lourdes B. Avilés, a meteorology professor at Plymouth State University, points out, no contemporary accounts depict such a dramatic showdown. Instead, that narrative arose decades later, when historians attempted to re-create the encounter.
The truth is there is no way of knowing exactly what transpired between the two men, since neither of them, nor any of their colleagues, ever elaborated on the events of that day. Because Mitchell was a highly respected forecaster with decades of experience, “most of the time,” Avilés contends, he “would have been the one who was right and the inexperienced junior forecaster or analyst would be the one learning from his experience; but this one time at least, when it mattered most, Mitchell was wrong or seemingly unaware of what was going on in the atmosphere.”
Mitchell also was seemingly not sufficiently impressed by history. While he was correct that the vast majority of Cape Verde-type hurricanes weaken considerably as they go north and then slingshot around the Bermuda High into oblivion, that had not always been the case. The devastating New England hurricanes of 1635, 1815, and 1821—not to mention other hurricanes that hit the region in 1869, 1878, 1893, and 1903—should have at least caused him to question his forecast, or to take more precautions by expanding the zone of concern. Tragically, Mitchell’s apparent lack of historical perspective and his decision not to give more credence to Pierce’s analysis meant that when the hurricane struck the coast, the people in its path were caught totally by surprise.
The hurricane made landfall on Long Island at around 3:00 in the afternoon. Observers on the South Shore looking out to sea were at first puzzled by what appeared on the horizon, and then alarmed. We thought it was “a thick and high bank of fog rolling in fast from the ocean,” one of them said. “When it came closer, we saw that it wasn’t fog. It was water.” The hurricane could not have come at a worse time. It was during an unusually high tide, which, when combined with the driving wind, low pressure, and storm surge, generated monumental storm tides along the coast, up to 25 feet above average low water. Waves thunderously crashing on the shore were reported to be 30 to 50 feet high. The storm destroyed so much of the local communication systems, including phone and telegraph lines, that many of the places hit first had no way of alerting those who were next in line, so those places were similarly unprepared for the maelstrom that suddenly enveloped them.
Excerpted from A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes. Copyright (c) 2020 by Eric Dolin. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.