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Delaware’s Dance with the Great Hurricane of 1938

bethany beach post hurricane hagley museum

Bethany Beach post hurricane

The Great Hurricane of 1938 marked Delaware’s 26th in a span of 100 years. A gale in 1903 was recorded as Category 1. Two years prior to the Great Hurricane, in 1936, a Category 2 tempest swept through the state. 

The ‘Great’ Hurricane did not have as devastating an impact on Delaware, despite its name. However, the moniker accurately described the devastation wrought to New York and further north. 

This Category 3 storm, accompanied by a powerful tidal surge and fierce surf, collided with Long Island. The intensity of the impact was detected by seismographs as far away as Alaska. 

Seismic Impact on Long Island

Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay was likewise actively monitoring the situation. The U.S. Weather Bureau had only started officially recognizing and issuing warnings for ‘hurricane season’ three years earlier.  

When the Great Hurricane swept past the state, Delawareans were prepared. The combined work of the region’s maritime organizations gave residents a clear picture of what to expect.  

News coverage of September 21-22 paints a detailed picture of the impact of an average hurricane on Delaware:  

The state hunkered down for a brawling tempest after eight consecutive days of dousing rain. Farmers and coastal residents braced themselves for a humdinger. Forecasters called for 75 mph winds.  

Coastal areas are typically harder hit by hurricanes than areas further inland because they are directly exposed to the initial impact of the storm, which includes high winds, storm surge, and torrential rain. In contrast, as hurricanes move inland, they lose their source of warm, moist ocean air, causing them to gradually weaken and dissipate.  

Prevailing westerly winds intervened, pushing the hurricane’s northbound Atlantic path further away from the coast. This fortunate weather pattern spared Delaware the storm’s full impact.   

Nonetheless, winds whirled in at a 45-mph velocity. Ships scurried to seek shelter behind the refuge of the Delaware Breakwater.  

The storm’s winds leveled corn fields and felled trees. Power outages hit Lewes Beach and left the town of Claymont and their school in afternoon darkness.  

Consolidated Fisheries in Lewes anxiously awaited news from five of their menhaden boats. Their vessels were believed to have sought shelter somewhere along the coast.  

Typically flood-prone areas held their collective breath as waters rose, threatening to overflow in places like the Christina River at Wilmington’s Third Street Bridge. 

In Kent County, several inches of water covered the intersection of Causey Avenue and Mill Street, near the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Milford.  

The intersection of the Harrington-Milford Road and DuPont Highway was also underwater, but traffic dared to keep moving.  

Agricultural Anguish

This storm brought an unusually high volume of rain. Wilmington’s City Registry Clerk’s office recorded more rain falling between 5 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Wednesday than during the previous year’s entire September. The flooding ruined the remaining unpicked tomato crop.  

Remarkably, the weather changed abruptly from an escalating storm to relatively clear conditions within a brief span of one hour.  

High waters began receding as the winds shifted. A sense of relief permeated the towns. The mercury dipped to a season-low of 47 degrees overnight. The sun came up the next morning bright and clear.  

Shipping activities in the bay cautiously resumed, despite still rough seas and “house high” waves off the coast.  

The storm finally abated, and people across Delaware started assessing the devastation. Property damage was minimal. Newspapers and radio stations reported no dams bursting, serious upheaval to roads, or major structural damage.  

The Delaware Red Cross conducted assessments to determine if relief was necessary in storm-affected areas. All told, conditions ended up largely normal.  

The state’s weary residents, and their surroundings, had successfully withstood another storm. The most destructive hurricane Delaware would ever witness, the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, was still yet to come. 

Hurricane damage in Felton, DE. Delaware Public Archives
Hurricane damage in Felton, DE. Delaware Public Archives

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