History

The Worst New England Weather Disasters

Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards — New England has had it all. Here are seven of the worst New England weather disasters in history.

By Joe Bills

Mar 03 2021

worst_weather_1936Flood

Keene, New Hampshire’s Main Street is submerged during the 1936 flood.

Photo Credit : Keene Public Library and Historical Society of Cheshire County
Compared with some areas of the world, New England is pretty stable when it comes to weather. We get hot spells in the summer and cold snaps in the winter, and we have our fair share of storms. And while we get plenty of uncomfortable weather in New England, it’s not necessarily a lot of dangerous weather. But when New England weather does turn dangerous, it is a scary sight to behold. Here are a few examples of New England weather gone bad.

7 Worst New England Weather Disasters

The sidewheel steamer S.S. Portland capsized in the Gale of 1898, sinking with 192 passengers and crew aboard. There were no survivors.
Photo Credit : Samuel Ward Stanton

Gales of 1815 and 1898

The word hurricane wasn’t even in use yet, but the Providence Gale of 1815 would likely have been a category 3 storm by today’s standards. The first hurricane to strike New England in nearly two centuries, it caught the region thoroughly unprepared. Every state in the region was affected, with Rhode Island taking the hardest blow. The storm landed in Providence on September 23, destroying hundreds of homes and dozens of ships (several of which were lifted in the surge and bashed against downtown buildings). On November 26, 1898, the Portland Gale ended a quick trip up the East Coast by clobbering New England with the most powerful storm that had been recorded to date. More than 200 fatalities were attributed to the storm, and 150 boats were lost, including the S.S. Portland, which gave the storm its name. Coastal houses were blown down and washed away, and the coastline was littered with the wreckage of dozens of boats and ships.

Heat Wave of 1911

The two-week heat wave in July 1911 killed nearly 2,000 New Englanders, making it the most devastating New England weather event of all time. Horses dropped in the street; young and old people overheated and expired. It was so hot that boats in Providence Harbor oozed pitch from their seams and began to take on water. Trains derailed because tracks had softened in the heat. At least 200 people drowned while attempting to cool off in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. See more: 6 Strange Weather Events in New England History | Worst Weather Disaster in New England History
The Worst New England Weather Disasters
Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire, during the 1936 flood.
Photo Credit : Keene Public Library and Historical Society of Cheshire County

Connecticut Flood of 1936

On March 11, 1936, a massive rainstorm fell on New England, where lakes and rivers were already brimming with melting snow. For two weeks, rain buffeted the eastern U.S. Some spots, including Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, received nearly two feet of rain. The Androscoggin River in Maine rose to record levels, as did the Merrimack in Massachusetts and the Pemigewasset in New Hampshire. In Hartford, Connecticut River floodwaters rose 38 feet, a record that still stands. Dams burst and roads were washed away. It is estimated that 200 people were killed, and 14,000 were left homeless.
During the Hurricane of 1938, Rhode Island’s Island Park was destroyed by a breaker that was reportedly 40 feet high. Here, a washing machine is all that remains of a destroyed home.
Photo Credit : NOAA, Steve Nicklas

Hurricane of 1938

In 1938, New England experienced a hurricane more powerful than any in the region’s recorded history. On September 21, as the storm crossed Long Island Sound and arrived in Connecticut, it was still intensifying. By the time it passed into Rhode Island, its winds were gusting to 120 mph. Fifteen-foot storm surges in Narragansett Bay left parts of downtown Providence under more than 13 feet of water. In Massachusetts, an astonishing wind gust of 186 mph was recorded in the Boston suburb of Milton. As it moved into northern New England, the storm began to dissipate. But by then, approximately 600 New Englanders were dead, with hundreds more injured. An incredible 4,500 homes were destroyed; another 25,000 or so were badly damaged. See more: Hurricane of 1938 Trivia | Remembering September 21 & 22, 1938

Worcester Tornado of 1953

New England doesn’t see a lot of tornadoes, but in 1953 a twister a mile wide cut a swath of destruction through half a dozen towns in Western Massachusetts. It was easily the worst tornado in New England history. The big storm was on the ground for an hour and a half, destroying houses and tossing cars. In addition to the winds, hailstones the size of baseballs pelted Boston suburbs. Across New England, other tornadoes were touching down as well. More than 90 people died, more than 1,000 were injured, and some 4,000 buildings were destroyed.

Hurricanes Connie and Diane, 1955

In the summer of 1955, a pair of hurricanes hit New England in quick succession. Hurricane Connie packed strong winds and heavy rain but had spent much of its energy by the time it arrived. As it turned out, Connie was just a little jab, momentarily distracting New Englanders from the haymaker that Hurricane Diane would deliver just days later. More than a foot of rain fell, causing massive flooding. Nearly 17 inches of rain fell on Torrington, Connecticut, and nearly 20 inches fell on Westfield, Massachusetts. Hundreds of dams and buildings were damaged, making Diane the most costly storm in U.S. history up to that point. An entire block of 13 houses washed away in Waterbury, Connecticut. More than 500 homes were lost in Connecticut, and 77 people were killed. See more:Worst Hurricanes in New England History
The Blizzard of 1978 stranded thousands of cars on New England highways, including these on Route 128 South in Needham, Massachusetts.
Photo Credit : Jim McDevitt/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Wikimedia Commons

Blizzard of 1978

In February 1978, New England was hit by a mammoth snowstorm. More than 27 inches fell in both Boston and Providence, setting new records in both cities. Other areas saw four feet or more, along with heavy winds that caused major drifting. The storm killed about 100 people in the Northeast and injured another 4,500. Fourteen people died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Interstate 95 near Boston, as snow blocked tailpipes on idling vehicles. More than 3,500 cars were abandoned on roads during the storm, further complicating an already messy cleanup project. Flooding from the storm destroyed thousands of coastal properties in Massachusetts, including Rockport’s iconic landmark fishing shack, Motif No. 1. See more:Worst Snowstorms in New England History | By the Numbers: The Blizzard of ’78 Have you experienced some scary New England weather? Tell us about it! This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.