New England in Ruins: Recalling the Great Hurricane of ’38

More than 70 years before Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the eastern U.S., a terrifying, legendary storm swept through New England, leaving an eerily similar geography of ruin in its wake.

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All great natural disasters live on, undiminished, in the recollection of those who survive them, and in the collective memory of those in the regions raked by death and ruin. The worst earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and floods endure long after the ground stops shaking or the waters recede; their names alone, meanwhile, gradually become a kind of sinister shorthand for epic catastrophe.

Katrina. Loma Prieta. The Boxing Day Tsunami. Appalling images from these and so many other cataclysms — even for those who witnessed them from thousands of miles away — rise vividly to mind upon simply hearing those names. For New Englanders of a certain generation, and for those who grew up hearing tales of what, for decades, was the defining natural disaster of the century, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, a.k.a, the Long Island Express or, simply, the Great Hurricane, stands out in lore and in fact due to the sheer scale of its destructive power.

Hundreds of people were killed across New York (especially Long Island), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire when the Category 3 storm made landfall in mid-September of that year. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were shattered or obliterated, causing billions of dollars in damage. Atop New Hampshire’s fabled Mt. Washington (“Home of the World’s Worst Weather”), peak winds reached more than 135 mph. The storm seared itself into the landscape, and into the memory of entire communities, from Brooklyn’s Rockaways to Hartford to Vermont’s Great Northern Kingdom.

Here, as people and municipalities in as many as 15 states try to assess and recover from the incalculable, unprecedented damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy, TIME.com looks back in photos at the Great Hurricane of ’38, and the eerily similar geography of ruin faced by those who emerged, shaken but determined, from both monster storms.

More photos:
In the Eye of the Storm: Capturing Sandy’s Wrath

More Photography from Time

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