The ’38 Hurricane

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Some of the people on the stalled and swaying train tried to walk away along the flooded causeway; a woman and a dining-car worker were drowned. But most of the passengers were herded into the first car behind the locomotive. A trainman, working in water up to his shoulders, managed to uncouple that car from the rest of the train. With the one crowded car in tow, the engineer moved the locomotive slowly ahead, nudging the house and the cabin cruiser off the track. He then proceeded to higher, safer ground—before the storm wave hit and toppled the abandoned cars.

That evening those on the train saw a red sky over nearby New London, where a quarter-mile area of waterfront was ablaze. The storm had thrust a five-masted training ship up against a building, bursting a boiler in the furnace room. Other fires had started from short-circuited wiring in flooded basements. Fallen trees and other debris blocked fire engines on their way to the critical area, and the whole city was threatened. But at eleven that night—while firemen were preparing to dynamite buildings to stop the spread of flame—the wind shifted to the north and confined the fire to the smouldering waterfront.

Spared the terror of the seacoast’s storm wave, the interior of New England had to contend with flood levels in many of its major river systems as well as with hurricane winds. At Hartford, the flooding Connecticut River kept three thousand W.P.A. workers and volunteers at work for three days and nights building a sandbag dike that saved most of the city. At times the top of the barrier was but inches above the rising water. The Connecticut city of Norwich, isolated in the flooded Thames River valley, had to be supplied by airdrop.

Dartmouth’s campus at Hanover, New Hampshire, was only slightly less battered than Yale’s at New Haven, Connecticut. And elsewhere in New Hampshire, the Mount Washington Cog Railway’s trestle and base station were torn down amid winds that the summit weather station there recorded at over 180 miles an hour. There was no mistaking the power of that wind: after the storm a gannet, a sea bird whose habitat is the North Atlantic, was found near Barre, Vermont, over 100 miles from salt water.

All of New England, including Maine, suffered staggering losses in trees. Two thirds of Vermont’s sugar maples and half of New Hampshire’s white pines fell; the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, alone counted 16,000 shade trees down. The United States Forest Service estimated that the fallen timber totalled about three and a quarter billion board feet—enough to build 200,000 five-room houses.

Connecticut had been, relatively speaking, fairly well protected by Long Island, but not so Rhode Island, whose shore line from Watch Hill to Point Judith was utterly at the mercy of the high winds and the big wave. Rhode Island’s total of 380 storm deaths was higher than the total of other storm-stricken states.

Waterfront cottages were already being battered and flooded when the storm wave, more than thirty feet high, came rolling in and finished the job, carrying off people and debris. At Misquamicut Beach, forty-one persons were killed, including a group of ten women who had been at a church picnic. Some stretches of beach were swept so clean, foundations and all, and were so changed topographically that owners later were unable to find their lots. The Red Cross, trying to check on missing persons, had to consult telephone company maps to find out where houses had been. One Misquamicut woman later wrote, “You watch your house take to the air soundlessly—complete with weather vane, standard plumbing, unpaid bills, and your eyeglasses.”

At Watch Hill, at the southwestern tip of the state, one resident described the wave as “covering everything like a long roll of cotton.” The local yacht club was split in two, and a grand piano came flying out through a gap in its roof. A young woman who had been watching the crashing surf was unable to escape the final, massive wave. She was thrown up into the crossarms of a telephone pole; as the pole toppled, its broken wires whipped around her, binding her securely. Thus lashed, she floated all night in Little Narragansett Bay.

At Napatree Point, in Watch Hill, Mrs. Helen Lee recalled,

I was sitting on the wood-pile … [on the porch] with the dog and saying aloud, “I wonder how much longer,” when something hit the front of the house, I think it may have been a section of the retaining wall, and the wave washed into my lap. It knocked the porch down, something broke my left arm, and the dog and I were washed into the bay, as if on a roller coaster, all in ten seconds. I looked up and the lattice of the porch was coming at me. I ducked under some squares of our sidewalk, which I had seen washed out like stamps, and the lattice went over my head. I reached the dog and undid the leash, and she floated off on a board …

Mrs. Lee was wearing a waterproof watch; it was 4:30 just before she was washed into the bay, and at 6:30, having clung to debris in the interim, she landed on the Connecticut shore across the bay.

The storm did not, of course, confine itself to the coast. In Providence, people were drowned near the city hall, and the water level rose to a record thirteen feet, nine inches.

Among those trapped in downtown Providence was the novelist David Cornel De Jong, who found refuge in a third-floor office. Marooned for most of the night, he watched people form human chains and make their way to safety through water up to their chins. He also witnessed, and subsequently wrote about, the eerie aftermath of disaster—the arrival of looters: