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New England's Katrina

By Karin Crompton

Published September 21. 2008 4:00AM   Updated September 15. 2009 11:26AM

Sept. 21, 1938: At 7:30 in the morning, the center of a hurricane is about 75 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

In Depression-era New London, 600 miles to the north, children are finishing their morning chores and adults are getting ready for work. The summer cottages that press up against the boardwalk at Ocean Beach, just yards from the water, are mostly empty. So, too, are most of the 44 houses that stand, many of them on stilts, on the skinny peninsula of Napatree Point in Rhode Island.

The storm, unnamed, has puttered out at sea for about a week, tracking slowly over the Atlantic from the West Indies, and curving north in time to miss Puerto Rico before sweeping along the Eastern Seaboard well away from land.

The morning of Sept. 21 is the first time this hurricane has "approached any coastal or island area close enough to be felt seriously," according to the U.S. Weather Bureau.

The bureau sticks by its predictions that the storm, after grazing Cape Hatteras, will turn east and head harmlessly out to sea. It ignores the calculations of a 28-year-old junior meteorologist, Charles Pierce, who predicts the hurricane will head due north.

In southeastern Connecticut, as elsewhere, people had listened to the radio before going to bed. Some have tuned in this morning, but they hear nothing unusual. Normally, they get most of their news at the end of the workday, when they read the afternoon newspaper.

They often get their morning weather reports by scanning the sky and watching what the commercial fishermen do. The commercial boats are on their way out, though some of the old-timers are talking about returning early.

Off the mid-Atlantic coast, the hurricane is racing.

Only a day earlier, the storm had been moving at 15 mph far off the coast of Florida. By the night of the 20th, it had suddenly picked up speed, hitting more than 60 mph. Because it moved so fast, it hasn't weakened over cooler waters.

At 10:00 on this Wednesday morning, the bureau changes a storm warning into a "whole-gale" warning from the Virginia capes to Sandy Hook, N.J.

By 1 p.m., the hurricane's center passes about 75 miles east of Atlantic City. An hour earlier, the Bostonian, a passenger train, had pulled out of Grand Central Terminal and headed for Boston via tracks along the Connecticut shoreline.

At 2 p.m., the Weather Bureau issues another warning: the storm "would likely pass over Long Island and Connecticut in the late afternoon or early night."

The warning comes far too late.

The storm hurtles toward an unsuspecting shoreline, toward people who have gone about their daily lives - to school, to work, on picnics, packing up their summer cottages, out on their boats.

When the center of the storm hits the Connecticut shoreline a little before 4 p.m., the area is already saturated from about a week's worth of rain. The storm hits at high tide during the autumnal equinox, when seas are higher and stronger than usual. The storm surge is so strong that seismographs in Alaska record it.

The hurricane's center passes over New Haven, putting southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island on the whiplash side of the hurricane, the eastern side, where wind velocity is higher.

Barometer readings plummet as low as 27.94 on the Pawcatuck River, far below normal readings of about 29.92, and many shoreline instruments that record gusts blow apart when the wind hits 100 mph.

When it is done, the Hurricane of '38, which would today be labeled a Category 3 storm, has killed more than 600 people - the exact number varies in different accounts - and injured 1,700; destroyed or damaged more than 57,000 homes in New England and Long Island; and destroyed more than 2,600 boats.

A fire in New London has threatened the whole downtown and has destroyed more than 25 buildings. The Bostonian has derailed in Stonington. Napatree Point in Rhode Island has been wiped clean of cottages. Houses at Ocean Beach in New London are tossed into a nearby cove. Boats have been thrown into streets and across railroad tracks.

In its latest rankings, compiled in 2007, the National Hurricane Center ranks the Hurricane of '38 as the 15th deadliest hurricane in history. It is also the 15th costliest, at about $6.6 billion in damage in today's dollars. In 1938, less than 5 percent of businesses and homes had insurance.

"Never in the memory of living men had such a terrific storm lashed this section," The Day reported in a special edition published Oct. 1, 1938, "and it found a populace wholly unprepared to resist it and wholly at a loss as to methods to escape from its wrath."

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