Hurricane of 1938: Even Downgraded, Storm Had Incredible Speed

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The Napier House on Main Street. Photograph courtesy of the Sag Harbor Historical Society Linda Matlles-Schiavoni Collection.

Hurricane Nate amazed meteorologists not for its strength or size but for its speed.

The storm had sustained winds of 85 mph when it arrived in southeast Louisiana late on the night of October 7, 2017, and was still labeled a Category 1 storm — the lowest level on today’s modern hurricane measuring scale — when it made landfall a second time a few short hours later near Biloxi, Mississippi.

It was able to cover so much ground in such a short time because it was moving at an unprecedented 28 mph, making it the fastest forward-moving hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Weather Service. That unusual speed allowed the storm, which killed dozens of people in Central America, to get from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to the Louisiana coast — a distance of roughly 640 miles — in less than a day.

And that’s still nothing compared to the Hurricane of 1938, nicknamed “The Long Island Express,” which steamrolled the East End 80 years ago this Friday, September 21.

Though its forward speed has been reduced from original estimates — a decision that lacks the support of storm expert and meteorologist Scott Mandia, the assistant chair and professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College — the Hurricane of 1938 was still moving north at an eye-popping 47 mph when it made landfall on Long Island, as per the National Hurricane Center.

“It’s the fastest moving storm on record, though there’s now debate on how fast it was moving,” Mr. Mandia said.

Though modern storm tracking equipment was lacking at the time, Mr. Mandia said he and others had long agreed that the storm was able to cover more than 1,000 miles — the distance between Florida and Long Island — in less than a day because the deadly hurricane had a forward speed of between 50 and 60 mph, and possibly as fast at 70 mph at one point on its collision course with Long Island.

He said the official record now lists the storm’s forward speed as 47 mph because weather experts studying the Hurricane of 1938, as well as other storms from that era, are using a newer three-cup anemometer to estimate wind speed. In the 1930s, most anemometers featured four cups and, therefore, all hurricanes were measured using the same instrument. Today, three cup anemometers remain the weather industry standard to measure wind speed and direction.

But Chris Landsea, chief of the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, says the decision to lower the hurricane’s forward speed is unrelated to the change in anemometers. He explained that “the earlier estimates of 60 to70 mph have been replaced by 40 kt (45 to 50 mph), based on a reanalysis of the hurricane’s positions.

“The earlier estimates were speculative and not well founded,” he continued.

Still, a National Hurricane Center website dedicated to the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded, www.nhc.noaa.gov/outreach/history, states that on the morning of September 21, 1938, the Hurricane of 1938 was between 100 and 150 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, when “it accelerated to a forward motion of 60 to 70 mph, making landfall over Long Island and Connecticut that afternoon as a Category 3 hurricane.”

However, a reanalysis of that storm, completed in August 2014 as part of a study that reexamined all recorded hurricanes between 1931 and 1943, significantly lowers that estimation.

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