Hurricane of '38: 75 years later

This September 1938 photo shows a damaged ferry boat sitting in shallow water in Providence following the deadly hurricane of 1938 that hit the Northeast. AP Photo/Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones/FILE

Seventy-five years ago Saturday, the hurricane of 1938 roared across central Long Island, the worst case scenario for Rhode Island and southeast Massachusetts.

More than 600 people were killed and damage in adjusted dollars was nearly $2 billion.

But what have we learned since then, and are we ready for the next one?

The hurricane of 1938 was about as bad as it gets in Southern New England. The hurricanes in 1944 and 1954 packed big punches too.

However the area's most recent storms, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy were still not a match for a storm as big as the one in 1938. In that hurricane, sustained winds were clicked at over 100 mph. Its forward speed was estimated at 70 mph.

The storm finally made landfall over Long Island and Connecticut that crashed the 14-foot storm surge with huge waves on top at a high, astronomical tide. First, it came over the coastal communities, and then it funneled the water up Narragansett Bay to Providence.

"When you look at Sandy in particular and you look at the damage on the south coast, people need to realize that the flooding that they experienced was not at all anywhere near that we will receive when we get hit by another '38-type storm. Sandy only produced a 4 to 5 foot storm surge. That's a third of what the '38 hurricane drove up here," said David Vallee of the National Weather Service in Taunton.

"We're training all the time. We're updating our plans and we like to think that we're always ready for the next thing that comes no matter what it is," said Peter Gaynor of the Providence Emergency Management Agency.

There are high water marks at various locations throughout downtown Providence from the hurricane of 1938. One on the side of the Federal Reserve building shows the water reached head-high.

In response to the storm, and other hurricanes, the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier was built in the 1960s.

"There's a lot of capacity in the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, probably a third more than the '38 hurricane, so we're pretty confident that we would be ready for another '38 hurricane or worse," Gaynor said.

The historic floods of 2010 did not come from a tropical weather system. Hurricane Irene came a year later, downing trees and power lines. And most recently Superstorm Sandy pummeled Southern New England.

Gaynor said, in Providence, water will be an issue in some locations with future storms, but wind and tree damage and downed wires will be the thing that they deal with the most.

"I think when you look at Sandy and you look at the coastal flooding and how it evolved, we were fortunate because we had two or three days to prepare. When you have an accelerating hurricane like '38, we may have a day at most by the time the system makes that turn in the Bahamas and accelerates into the Ocean State," Vallee said.

Experts warn atmospherics that have been suppressing activity are expected to change, and we can still have a late blooming, above average hurricane season.