Just six years after the Great Hurricane of 1938 devastated New England, a storm of similar magnitude was heading north from the Caribbean: the Great Atlantic Hurricane.
The 1938 hurricane was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. It killed more than 600 people, damaged or destroyed 30,000 houses, totaled 26,000 cars and knocked over 2 billion trees.
The Great Atlantic Hurricane was a monster that rivaled the 1938 storm in force and fury. It killed hundreds, most at sea, and caused $1 billion in damage.
The Great Atlantic Hurricane could have been much, much worse had it not been for the pilots who flew into the intensifying storm and provided detailed real-time knowledge of it. The Weather Bureau and civil defense officials who had been alerted to danger throughout World War II used that information to evacuate people from the coast and save lives.
Great Atlantic Hurricane
On Sept. 9, 1944, a U.S. Army Air Force WB-25D with extra fuel tanks flew into the Great Atlantic Hurricane developing 250 miles north of Puerto Rico. It was the first of seven military flights into one of the worst storms of the century.
World War II was raging, and the military needed to know how the weather would affect wartime patrols and other forces at sea. But the need for military intelligence had the added benefit of alerting civilians to the colossal storm — a danger worse than Nazi U-boats.
The plane that flew into the hurricane encountered tremendous turbulence. The weather officer, Lt. Victor Klobuchar, estimated wind speeds of 140 mph. From time to time the pilot and co-pilot lost control of the airplane, and they feared it would be ripped apart or crash. When they returned safely, they discovered 150 rivets had been sheared from just one wing.
The information they brought back about the storm saved countless lives. Warnings were issued by radio and loudspeakers. Families were evacuated from coastal areas where people had been trapped in 1938.
…hour after hour, radio stations from Delaware to Maine cried the alarm, like pygmies running ahead of a mad elephant. The people listened to the loudspeakers.
In Fitchburg, Mass., for example, civil defense headquarters was notified of the storm and the city’s chief air raid warden told sector wardens to call their emergency personnel if necessary.
Harry Gratwick, in Stories From the Maine Coast: Skippers, Ships and Storms, adds a personal note to his account of the storm:
As the hurricane crossed Long Island Sound and moved toward Rhode Island, the Coast Guard went house-to-house issuing warnings for coastal residents to evacuate. My wife, who was then four, and her one-year-old brother were spending the summer with their grandmother in Narragansett, Rhode Island. That intrepid lady had taken her grandchildren down to the beach to look at the rough seas. As a result, they missed the Coast Guard warning and returned to their house without realizing the severity of the storm of the need to evacuate.
According to my wife, when the storm struck in the afternoon, the sky turned yellow. Later in the evening, she remembers her grandmother standing on a stepladder nailing boards across the windows that faced the sea to keep water from coming in. Needless to say, it was a tumultuous night. The next morning, the lawn was covered with boulders pushed up from the nearby shoreline by the raging seas.
It wasn’t only the timely warnings that made the Great Atlantic Hurricane less devastating than the 1938 hurricane. The Great Atlantic Hurricane made landfall when it was lessening in power and the tide was low, unlike the storm six years earlier. It also struck land from a direction that produced a low storm surge.
The 1944 hurricane did most of its damage at sea, wreaking havoc on military shipping and killing 390 sailors. It sunk the destroyer USS Warrington, two Coast Guard cutters and a minesweeper.
One of the worst tragedies of the Great Atlantic Hurricane was the sinking of the Vineyard Lightship, moored off the entrances of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound.
As the ship’s commanding officer Warrant Officer Edgar Sevigny monitored the approaching storm, he didn’t like what he saw. The lightship would be the only vessel within miles. In case of trouble, with the ocean cleared of any boats, there would be no assistance available.
Sevigny asked permission to move to a sheltered location for a couple of hours while the storm passed, but was denied. The 12 men aboard the light ship battened down and tried to ride out the storm.
By morning, the lightship had disappeared. All the Navy reported was the lightship was off station. When she was finally found, she was sunk in 80-feet of water nearly a mile and a half away from her last position. The vessel’s masts and funnel were snapped off at the deck, but her moorings were still attached, which suggests the crew attempted to obey orders and keep the vessel at its position right until it was overwhelmed by the waves.
Damage from the Great Atlantic Hurricane
Onshore, the damage from the hurricane was the worst in the Connecticut cities of Bridgeport, which got 10.7 inches of rain, and Hartford, which got seven inches. Damage to tobacco and fruit crops in Connecticut was estimated at $2 million, while Rhode Island growers suffered as well.
On Cape Cod, damage to small boats and from falling trees and utility lines totaled $5 million. In the Massachusetts towns of Yarmouthport and Fairhaven, famous elms that had withstood a century of storms succumbed to the Great Atlantic Hurricane.
The Boston Globe opined that the great majority of folk had learned the lesson of the 1928 hurricane: Get under cover and stay there. “An alert Weather Bureau first adequately alarmed us all, and the comparatively low score in the death toll indicates how cooperative the people were everywhere,” the newspaper reported.
This story was updated in 2017.