Although the Hurricane Season in New England is defined as June 1st through November 30th, the vast majority of the 40 tropical systems that have impacted our region over the past century have struck during the months of August and September. Because Massachusetts is a relatively small state, it is important to realize that these are not just ‘coastal events’, but, in fact, everyone in the Commonwealth can be severely impacted by a major storm.
To best prepare ourselves for the future, it is important to revisit the past, and examine a dozen of the most notable New England Hurricanes and their catastrophic impact upon our region.
The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635
August 25, 1635
This was the first historical record of an intense hurricane striking New England. Some refer to it as America’s first recorded natural disaster. Likely a Cape Verde-type storm, the highest winds have been estimated at Category 3 or greater at landfall, with winds of 115-plus 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 even higher tides reported throughout the area Reports from the journal of Governor William Bradford describing the of dozens of Native Americans, the toppling of thousands of trees and the flattening of houses suggest that this storm may have possessed even greater intensity than the storms of 1815 and 1938.
The Great September Gale of 1815
September 23, 1815
Called the Great September Gale, because the word ‘hurricane’ was not yet current in American English, this storm was the first major hurricane to impact New England in 180 years. It initiated 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, 35 ships and flooded Providence, Rhode Island. Impacting Central and Coastal Massachusetts, ‘The Great Gale’ destroyed the bridge over the Neponset River, connecting 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 until ultimately making landfall in Rhode Island just west of Buzzards Bay, reaching the coast at Boston, and finally dissipating in Northern Maine. This storm was very compact, but intense. This storm was very compact, but intense, but caused extensive damage in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine. Fortunately, its arrival coincided with low tide lessening the storm surge and resulting damage.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938
September 21, 1938
This Category 5, which has also been dubbed “The Long Island Express”, was the first major hurricane to strike New England since 1869. Having formed off of the coast of Africa, it was first detected in the Tropical Atlantic. As it slowly moved northward, when it was 100 miles east of North Carolina it suddenly accelerated to a forward motion of 60 to 70 mph. Without warning, it made landfall as a Category 3, during an astronomically 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. Providence Rhode Island reported sustained winds of 100 mph, gusting to 125 mph. Storm tides of 14 to 18 feet inundated portions of the coast from Long Island to Connecticut with 18 to 25 foot tides reported as far east as Cape Cod. Narragansett Bay experienced a destructive storm surge of 12 to 14 feet. The hurricane’s heavy rains of 3” to 6” combined with the effects of the frontal system produced rainfall of 10” to 17” causing severe flooding, particularly in areas of Western Massachusetts and along the Connecticut River. Downtown Providence, R.I. was impacted by a 20-foot storm surge. Sections of the Towns 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
Sometimes compared to the Great Hurricane of 1938, this storm was first detected northeast of the Lesser Antilles. The Miami Hurricane Warning Office designated the storm, as such to emphasize its size and intensity. This may be the first time an ‘official’ name was give to a storm by the office which would evolve into the present-day National Hurricane Center. From there, it hugged the United States coast, crossing Long Island, New York, the Rhode Island Coast, emerged into Massachusetts Bay and impacted Maine. With 140 mph winds, this Category 4, produced hurricane force winds over a diameter of 600 miles causing over $100 million damage. 70-foot high waves were also reported. Up to 11” of rain fell in areas of New England. 390 deaths were attributed to this hurricane, most of which were at sea. The relatively low number of land deaths (46) was attributed to the well-executed warnings and evacuations. It wreaked havoc on World War II shipping, sinking a U.S. Navy destroyer and minesweeper, as well as two U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
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.
August 31, 1954
This compact, 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, just east of the Hurricane of 1938 landfall, 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, Rhode Island. Some consider Carol the worst storm in the history of Cape Cod. 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.
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, where peak gusts were recorded at 120 mph. Storm surges of 6’ were common. Its eastern track, which resulted in heavy rain and major inland flooding, adding 5” to 7” of rain, to Carol’s previous 6”. The storm was responsible for over 2 deaths and $40 million damage across the region. Ultimately, it made landfall near Eastport, Maine, becoming one of Maine’s worst-ever hurricanes. The name ‘Edna’ has been retired.
August 17-19, 1955
Born in the tropical Atlantic, this storm reached Category 3 status, as it followed the path of Hurricane Connie of 5 days earlier. Maximum winds were recorded at 120 mph. The cooler air behind Connie became entrained in Diane’s circulation causing it to steadily weaken to a Tropical Storm as it reached the Southern New England coast. However, Diane dropped heavy rain of 10” to 20”, setting flood records throughout the region. Diane was recognized as the wettest tropical cyclone to impact New England. The storm was blamed for nearly 200 deaths. The $832 million damage qualified it as the most costly hurricane in U.S. history until Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The name ‘Diana’ has been retired.
September 12, 1960
Hurricane Donna was a Category 5 Cape Verde-type 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 for retaining major hurricane status of Category 3 or better in the Atlantic basin for the longest period of time. From September 2nd to September 11th it sustained winds of 115 mph as it roamed the Atlantic for 17 days. 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. The name ‘Donna’ has been retired.
September 27, 1985
Hurricane Gloria was a powerful Category 4 Cape Verde-type storm that prowled the Atlantic for 13 days, with highest winds of 145 mph. Hugging the coastline, as it made its way north, Gloria crossed Long Island, making landfall at Milford, Connecticut. As it continued northeastward through New England, it became extratropical over Maine on the 28th. In spite of arriving during low tide, it did cause 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, Mass. The storm left over 2,000,000 people without power. It dropped up to 6” of rain in Massachusetts, causing many flooding issues in the region. Overall, casualties were relatively low with 8 deaths, but damage reached $900 million. The name ‘Gloria’ has been retired.
August 19, 1991
Formed in the Bahamas, Hurricane Bob made landfall in New England near New Bedford, Mass. with 115 mph winds, cutting a path across Southeastern Massachusetts towards the Gulf of Maine. Peak winds of in excess of 100 mph were recorded in the Towns of Brewster and Truro on Cape Cod. Over 60% of the residents of Southeastern Massachusetts and Southeastern Rhode Island lost power. There were 4 different reports of tornados as Bob came ashore. Buzzards Bay saw a 10- to 15-foot storm surge. A number of 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. The damage total for Southern New England was set at $1 billion, with $2.5 billion overall damage from the storm. The name ‘Bob’ has been retired.
Other Recent Significant Storms
Irene – August 2011
Within the last few years, there were other notable storms that had previously been classified as hurricane strength, but weakened to tropical storms or post tropical storms.
Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was a Category 3 hurricane in the Bahamas before eventually weakening to a tropical storm in New England. The storm did not make landfall directly in Massachusetts, but traveled inland through Connecticut and into western Massachusetts and Vermont. Despite this inland track, wind and heavy rains impacted the state causing 1 death and over 100 injuries. Damage assessments 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. Across the East Coast, Irene caused over $15 Billion in damages. Irene showed that tropical cyclones are not just a risk for those living close to the coast, but can affect the entire state of Massachusetts. The name ‘Irene’ has been retired.
Sandy – September 2012
Hurricane Sandy was a Category 3 hurricane near Cuba before weakening into a tropical storm/post-tropical cyclone. While the storm made final landfall in New Jersey, Massachusetts and the rest of New England still felt the impacts of Sandy due to the size of the massive storm. While southern New England was spared from most of Sandy’s power, portions of the south coast still saw significant damage due to coastal flooding. In some communities, entire dune systems were destroyed. Not only did these dunes not protect some properties at the time, these properties will remain more vulnerable to future coastal flooding until they can be repaired. Strong winds brought down trees and power lines, causing nearly 400,000 in power outages. Sandy showed that powerful tropical cyclones can still be a threat, even if they are no longer hurricanes or tropical storms. Damage across the East Coast from Sandy is estimated at over $50 Billion. The name ‘Sandy’ has been retired.