The year was 1938. On a late summer morning, September 21st, weather forecasting was not the precise science it is today. Hurricanes were tracked mainly through eyewitness reports, as modern technology like satellites and radar were yet to be invented. Early that day, a formidable hurricane was brewing off the coast of North Carolina. Although it was expected to curve out to sea, it had different plans.
With the weather finally cleared after a week of rain in New England, Katharine Hepburn, the distinguished Hollywood actress, decided to take advantage of the sunny day and went for a swim in the unusually turbulent waters of Long Island Sound. Unbeknownst to her, the tempest was racing towards New England at an alarming speed of 60 mph.
By the afternoon, the calm morning had given way to ominous clouds and escalating winds. The storm was not veering off into the ocean but barreling straight towards the northeastern seaboard. With no warning, a barrage of wind and water made landfall on Long Island and New England. Hepburn’s residence in Fenwick, Connecticut, was directly in its path.
As the water began to engulf Hepburn’s home, she, her mother, and her brother made a daring escape, clambering out of a kitchen window and running for their lives. Their decision was well-timed; soon after, the storm surge completely obliterated the house.
The hurricane, which was a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph, continued its destructive path across Long Island Sound, causing significant damage in Milford, Connecticut, and beyond. The most severe damage occurred east of the hurricane’s eye, in Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, right where Hepburn lived. The storm surge in New London, Connecticut, reached a record 10 feet, with even higher surges reported in Rhode Island.
The Long Island Express was a disaster of epic proportions. It claimed 700 lives, left 63,000 people homeless, and caused a staggering $620 million worth of damage, a massive amount in 1938 dollars.
Hepburn, however, was one of the lucky ones. She survived the storm, but the experience left a lasting impression. The Long Island Express has since been remembered as one of the most devastating storms to hit the United States, reshaping the New England coastline and forever marking the region’s history.