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50 Years Ago, Hurricane Changed Everything in New England

September 19, 1988

WESTERLY, R.I. (AP) _ Living in this coastal town, Elwot Avery learned to pay careful attention to the weather, and on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938, his nose told him to expect an ″autumnal sou’wester.″

It soon became clear it was something much worse. Trees were already down when a two-car garage was lifted by the winds before his eyes.

″It went up whole, like a kite, and flew on over the tops of the trees and smashed in the road just like so much kindling wood,″ recalls Avery, now 89.

Impelled beyond reason to see more, Avery left his wife and stepped outside.

His hilltop home had become an island; neighboring houses were swamped in 5 feet of water. The wind nearly blew him off his feet. He crawled back on his hands and knees.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which had turned inland virtually without warning, was the worst natural disaster to hit the region. Its torrential rains, 30-foot waves and 186 mph winds pulverized granite seawalls, twisted railroad tracks like spaghetti and leveled whole forests.

Moreover, the storm was aimed like a giant wrecking ball at the most densely populated part of the country, the so-called Gold Coast between New York and Boston. It wiped out 4,500 homes and badly damaged 15,000 other buildings, smashed 26,000 cars, sank 6,000 boats and tore down nearly 20,000 miles of electric lines.

The death toll was generally calculated at 580 killed, 100 missing. Nowhere was it heavier per capita than in Westerly, a town of barely 20,000 inhabitants today and fewer then.

Within hours of the storm’s passing, the old Westerly High School became a temporary morgue where bodies - eventually more than 100 - were brought for identification.

Avery, as owner of a funeral home, was put in charge. Since all the telephone lines were down, he got a ham radio operator to order a truckload of caskets. Then he worked round the clock for three days - ″living on tomato soup and whiskey″ - to bury the dead.

Among them was his own mother, whose beachside cottage had been smashed to pieces by huge waves. The last time anyone saw her alive, he says, she was standing in the surf holding the handle of a suitcase. The suitcase itself had been torn away by the wind.

There were similar scenes of terror everywhere the hurricane struck, from Long Island to Maine.

As the waves swept through downtown Providence, people ran for higher ground. Some drowned in the streets.

Claire Powell, who was 9 years old, remembers the terror she felt when her father did not come home that night.

″It turned out he climbed a light pole and hung on until he was rescued,″ she says, still exuding relief 50 years later.

Short circuits caused by flooding set off the worst fire that New London, Conn., had seen since Benedict Arnold and the British torched the city in 1781. The flames quickly consumed 30 buildings and threatened the entire business district.

Firefighters, floundering in water above their waists, watched in frustration as the hurricane blew the spray from their hoses back into their faces. Only a shift in the wind saved the city.

Across the region, the storm cut power, transportation and telephones, isolating whole communities. In Somerville, Mass., physicians delivered babies by candlelight.

As the Connecticut River rose 25 feet and spilled over its banks, 10,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas of Springfield, Mass.

After the flooding came looting. Fall River, Marlboro and Northampton, Mass., were under martial law. National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets patroled Providence and Westerly.

But there were also many instances of heroism.

The New Haven Railroad’s Bostonian express was trapped, with 600 aboard, by floodwaters at a trestle near Stonington, Conn. Hulks of cottages and boats slammed against the cars. Passengers screamed as the train swayed dangerously.

The engineer ordered everyone into the first car and the tender of his locomotive. Wading into shoulder-deep water, he uncoupled the other cars, then climbed back aboard and opened the throttle, nudging aside a house that had been tossed onto the tracks and driving the locomotive inch-by-inch across the buckling trestle to safety.

On open water, it was a rare boat that was able to ride out the storm. In Somerset, Mass., a 600-foot oil tanker was tossed ashore. In Warwick, R.I., the wind picked up a 30-foot sloop like a toy and deposited it 40 feet above the ground in the branches of an elm, where it remained perched and little damaged.

Katherine Phillips of Providence was blown half-a-mile across Narragansett Bay clinging to a wooden door.

Mary Haggerty of East Providence looked out the window of the small office building where she was working and realized it was floating in the Seekonk River. She made her way to the roof as the building swept toward the India Point Bridge. At the moment of impact, she grabbed the bridge’s rail and held on.

In Hartford, the clock in the Old State House stopped at 4:10 p.m. An 80 mph wind, the highest recorded in the city, tore off roofs, uprooted trees and toppled buildings.

In Boston, the historic frigate Constitution was ripped from its moorings and damaged. Throughout the city, windows bent, then burst out toward the wind, showering the streets with glass. Some 2,000 injuries were reported.

The hurricane’s damage, in 1938 dollars, was estimated at $400 million - the equivalent of several billion dollars today. But some observers believe its effects went well beyond damage to property and loss of life.

″It has been described as an act of God in an age of innocence,″ says Everett S. Allen, who covered the storm as a reporter for the Standard-Times of New Bedford and wrote a book about it, ″A Wind To Shake the World,″ in 1976.

″We lived at that time with a general sense that things would always remain largely as they were. What the storm proved, at first blush, was that landmarks do not have to endure,″ he says.

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