Although the Atlantic Hurricane Season is officially June through November 30, the most active time in Massachusetts is late August through September. Hurricanes and tropical storms have the power to cause widespread devastation, affecting both coastal and inland areas. To best prepare for the future, it is important to revisit the past and examine some of the most significant hurricanes that have impacted.
The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 - August 25, 1635
This was the first historical record of an intense hurricane striking New England, and is often considered to be “America’s first recorded natural disaster”. The highest winds have been estimated at Category 3 or greater at landfall, reaching over 115 mph. The storm’s eye is believed to have passed between Boston and Plymouth, causing at least 46 casualties. The tide in Narragansett Bay was reported to be 14’ above normal, with higher tides reported throughout the area. Reports from the journal of Governor William Bradford described the deaths of dozens of Native Americans, the toppling of thousands of trees, and the flattening of houses.
The Great September Gale of 1815 - September 23, 1815
The Great September Gale began in the West Indies, growing to a Category 3 with winds of 135 mph. After crossing Long Island, New York, the storm came ashore at Saybrook, Connecticut, funneling an 11-foot storm surge up Narragansett Bay. There, it destroyed 500 houses and 35 ships, and flooded Providence, Rhode Island. The storm destroyed the bridge over the Neponset River that connected Dorchester and Milton, Massachusetts. At least 38 deaths have been attributed to this disaster.
The September Gale of 1869 - September 8, 1869
The September Gale was first observed in the Bahamas. It reached Category 3 before making landfall in Rhode Island just west of Buzzards Bay, reaching the coast at Boston, and finally dying down in Northern Maine. This storm was very compact, but intense, and caused extensive damage in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine. Fortunately, it struck during low tide, lessening the storm.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 - September 21, 1938
This Category 5 storm has also been dubbed “The Long Island Express.” It formed off of the coast of Africa and was detected in the tropical Atlantic. It slowly moved northward until it suddenly accelerated to 60 to 70 mph when it was 100 miles east of North Carolina. It made landfall as a Category 3 storm during high tide along Long Island and the Connecticut coast. The Blue Hill Observatory outside of Boston measured sustained winds of 121 mph, with gusts of 183 mph. Storm tides of 18 to 25 foot tides were reported as near Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay experienced a destructive storm surge of 12 to 14 feet. The hurricane produced rainfall of 10” to 17” and caused severe flooding, particularly in areas of Western Massachusetts and along the Connecticut River. Parts of Falmouth and Truro on Cape Cod were under 8 feet of water. The widespread destruction resulting from this storm included 600 deaths and 1,700 injuries. Over $400 million in damage occurred, including 9,000 homes and businesses lost and 15,000 damaged. Damage to the Southern New England fishing fleet was catastrophic, as over 6,000 vessels were either destroyed or severely damaged.
The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 - September 14-15, 1944
The Miami Hurricane Warning Office (which would later become the National Hurricane Center) designated the storm as “The Great Atlantic Hurricane” because of its size and intensity. This storm may be the first time an official name was give to a storm by the hurricane office leading to the modern hurricane naming system. With 140 mph winds, this Category 4 produced hurricane force winds over a diameter of 600 miles, causing over $100 million in damage. Seventy-foot high waves were also reported. Up to 11” of rain fell in areas of New England, and 390 deaths were attributed to the storm, most of which occurred at sea. The relatively low number of deaths on land (46) was attributed to the well-executed warnings and evacuations. However, the storm wreaked havoc on World War II ships, sinking a U.S. Navy destroyer and minesweeper, as well as two U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
Hurricane Dog - September 11-12, 1950
A strong Category 5, Hurricane Dog reached a peak intensity of 185 mph. The storm was named ‘Dog’, from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet (the 4th named storm of the season). First observed east of the Lesser Antilles on August 30th, this was a major hurricane that never actually made landfall, passing within 200 miles of Cape Cod. In fact it had weakened to barely hurricane strength as it passed Nantucket. However, it was responsible for the deaths of at least a dozen fishermen off the New England coast. It also caused about $3 million damage. Fortunately 17 naval vessels had relocated to avoid the storm. To this day, it retains the record for the longest continuous duration for a Category 5 Atlantic Hurricane of 60 hours, from September 5th through September 8th. Dog also fluctuated between Category 4 and 5 strength on four different occasions, which is also a record.
Hurricane Carol - August 31, 1954
This small but powerful borderline Category 3 battered New England, killing 68. With 100 mph winds gusting up to 135 mph, Carol caused over $460 million in damage, destroying 4,000 homes, 3,500 cars, and over 3,000 boats. This was arguably the most destructive storm to hit Southern New England since 1938. It formed as a tropical storm near the Bahamas, making brief landfall along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The storm passed over Long Island and, through Central New England into Canada, bringing a storm surge of 14.4 feet to Narragansett Bay and New Bedford Harbor. Over 6” of rain fell. Water depths reached 12 feet in downtown Providence. All of Rhode Island, much of Eastern Connecticut, and much of Eastern Massachusetts lost power, with a 95% loss of telephone service. The storm was still producing hurricane-force winds as it traveled through New Hampshire and Maine. Notably, it knocked down the spire of the Old North Church. The name ‘Carol’ was the first Atlantic hurricane to be retired.
Hurricane Edna - September 11, 1954
Edna arrived right on the heels of Hurricane Carol. It formed off of Barbados, reaching Category 3 strength at the Outer Banks of North Carolina with its highest winds of 120 mph. Edna tracked just east of Carol’s track. The storm passed over Eastern Cape Cod and the islands during a rising high tide, and storm surges of 6’ were common. Its eastern track resulted in heavy rain and major inland flooding, adding 5” to 7” of rain to Carol’s previous 6”. The storm was responsible for at least two deaths and $40 million damage across the region. It made landfall near Eastport, Maine, becoming one of Maine’s worst-ever hurricanes.
Hurricane Diane - August 17-19, 1955
Formed in the tropical Atlantic, this storm reached Category 3 status before it was impacted by the remnants of Hurricane Connie causing Diane to weaken to a tropical storm. Maximum winds were recorded at 120 mph Diane dropped heavy rain of 10” to 20”, setting flood records throughout the region. Diane was recognized as the wettest tropical cyclone in New England. The storm was blamed for nearly 200 deaths, and the $832 million in damage qualified it as the most costly hurricane in U.S. history at the time.
Hurricane Donna - September 12, 1960
Hurricane Donna was a Category 5 hurricane that impacted most of the Caribbean Islands and every single state on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. It recorded 160 mph winds with gusts up to 200 mph. Donna holds the record in the Atlantic basin for retaining major hurricane status of Category 3 or greater for the longest period of time. This storm is the only one on record to produce hurricane-force winds in Florida, the Mid-Atlantic States, and New England. Donna hit New England in Southeast Connecticut with sustained winds of 100 mph, gusting to 125–130 mph, cutting diagonally through the region to Maine. It produced pockets of 4” to 8” of rain as well as 5 to 10-foot storm surges. The storm ultimately killed 364, and caused over $500 million in damage.
Hurricane Gloria - September 27, 1985
Hurricane Gloria was a powerful Category 4 storm that prowled the Atlantic for 13 days, with winds up to 145 mph. Hugging the coastline as it made its way north, Gloria crossed Long Island and made landfall at Milford, Connecticut and continued northeastward through New England. Though it struck during low tide, Gloria caused severe beach erosion along the New England coast, as well as the loss of many piers and coastal roads. There was a moderate storm surge of 6.8 feet in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The storm left over 2,000,000 people without power, and dropped up to 6” of rain across the state, causing significant. Casualties were relatively low at eight deaths, but damage reached $900 million.
Hurricane Bob - August 19, 1991
Formed in the Bahamas, Hurricane Bob made landfall near New Bedford, Massachusetts, with 115 mph winds cutting a path across Southeastern Massachusetts toward the Gulf of Maine. Over 60% of the residents of Southeastern Massachusetts and Southeastern Rhode Island lost power. There were four different reports of tornados as Bob came ashore. Buzzards Bay saw a 10- to 15-foot storm surge, and south-facing beaches on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard lost 50 feet of beach to erosion. Up to 7” of rain was reported to have fallen throughout New England. Bob was blamed for 18 storm-related deaths, and the damage total for Southern New England was set at $1 billion, with $2.5 billion overall damage from the storm.
Recent Significant Storms
Within the last few years, there were other notable storms that were initially classified as hurricane strength, but weakened to tropical storms or post-tropical storms.
Irene – August 2011
Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was a Category 3 hurricane in the Bahamas that weakened to a tropical storm in New England. The storm traveled inland through Connecticut and into western Massachusetts and Vermont. Despite this inland track, wind and heavy rains impacted the state causing one death and over 100 injuries. It’s estimated that over 525 homes in Massachusetts were destroyed or suffered major damage. Some parts of the state received 9-10 inches of rainfall, which caused major flooding and road and bridge washouts. Strong winds took down trees and power lines, causing over 670,000 power outages throughout the state. Across the East Coast, Irene caused over $15 billion in damages. Irene showed that tropical cyclones can pose a risk for residents across the state, not just those living near the coast.
Sandy – September 2012
Hurricane Sandy was a Category 3 hurricane near Cuba that weakened into a tropical storm/post-tropical cyclone. While the storm made final landfall in New Jersey, Massachusetts and the rest of New England felt the impact of Sandy due to its massive size. Southern New England was spared from most of Sandy’s power, though portions of the south coast saw significant damage due to coastal flooding. In some communities, Sandy caused significant coastal erosion and damaged entire dune systems. Strong winds brought down trees and power lines, causing nearly 400,000 power outages in Massachusetts. Sandy showed that powerful tropical cyclones can still be a threat, even if they are no longer classified as hurricanes or tropical storms. Damage across the east coast from Sandy is estimated at over $50 billion.