Charlie Pierce: why is he important in CT weather history?

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By Richard Sparago on May 1, 2012, 9:07pm

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You may be wondering, "who is Charlie Pierce, and what role did he have in Connecticut weather history?" Charlie Pierce was a young, junior meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Bureau, now known as The National Weather Service.

Charlie was in his position with the Weather Bureau in 1938. Charlie observed something that his more senior colleagues did not.

On September 4, 1938, a hurricane formed near the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. The hurricane began its westward trek, and based on observations (there were no satellites and radar, of course) and tracking, hurricane warnings went up for Florida on September 18th. However, the hurricane took a slight turn to the north when it reached the Bahamas, missing Florida, and headed toward Cape Hatteras.

Once the hurricane reached the outer banks of North Carolina, there were two apparent options for its next move. It could continue northwest, and slam into the Washington DC area, or veer out to sea. Since there was a high-pressure system just west of the mid-Atlantic states, the logical choice was for the hurricane to harmlessly drift out into the Atlantic, but Charlie saw something else. He saw that high pressure was centered just east of the New England states. He warned the more senior meteorologists that the "bowling alley" was set, and that the storm would go in a straight line, directly toward Long Island. Charlie was overruled, and the official New York forecast was for "clouds and gusts" on September 21st. As we know, Charlie was right!

The "Great Hurricane of 1938" devastated Long Island and Connecticut, and some of that devastation may have been prevented if Charlie's warnings were heeded. While hurricanes were not categorized at that time, it is estimated that this one was a category 3, with maximum, sustained winds of 121 mph. Rainfall in CT ranged from 10 to 17 inches. 564 lives were lost in CT and on Long Island, and an estimated 1,700 were injured. 8,900 homes were destroyed, and another major difficulty from the storm was that fires were started by downed power lines. Property damage was also quite extreme from the storm, the photo above being from the Old Saybrook area. If it were color, wouldn't it look a lot like the conditions when Irene arrived?

One more interesting fact about the hurricane of 1938: it has been named the "Long Island Express." This is because the forward speed of the storm was unprecedented. The storm was moving at an estimated 70 mph when it hit the south shore of Long Island! The speed is related to the proximity of the two high-pressure systems to the storm, squeezing it up the coast. In fact, the storm was centered near Cape Hatteras at 7:30 am on September 21st, and it made landfall on LI at 3:30 pm that day. The second landfall of the storm was somewhere between Milford and New Haven, and the storm maintained tropical characteristics until it hit Canada.

Yes, Charlie Pierce, they should have listened to you.

And today is May 1st. In 31 days, Atlantic hurricane season begins.

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Richard Sparago

Town: Milford, CT  

Reporting for WXedge since February 2012.

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