In September of 1938, a great storm rose up on the African coast and began to cross the Atlantic. The National Weather Bureau predicted it would blow itself out at Cape Hatteras, just as such storms usually did. But there was nothing typical about this storm. Without sophisticated forecasting tools, the East Coast was taken by surprise as the storm suddenly headed north. Within 24 hours of the Weather Bureau's benign forecast, the so-called "Florida cyclone" ripped into the New England coast with a fury that set off seismographs in Alaska.

PHOTO: Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS
Island Park was destroyed by a breaker with a reported height of 30 to 40 feet. The New England Hurricane of 1938 traveled 600 miles in 12 hours, surprising southern New England and causing widespread destruction.

Expecting only heavy rains, people found themselves, virtually without warning, in the midst of the most devastating storm ever recorded in North America. Traveling at 60 m.p.h., with peak gust winds surging up to three times that speed, the storm killed some 600 people, destroyed 8,000 homes and wrecked 6,000 boats. This program follows the lives of fishermen, Shinnecock Indians and vacationers who were caught up in this incredible natural disaster.

Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS-HD.

American Experience