The Hurricane of 1938 (75th Anniversary)

Downtown Providence, Sept. 21, 1938. That's city hall; the Biltmore Hotel is to the right. The storm surge reached 21 feet here.

Downtown Providence, Sept. 21, 1938. That’s city hall; the Biltmore Hotel is to the right. The storm surge reached 21 feet here.

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States, the Great Hurricane of 1938. Because the deadliest edge of the storm was my home state of Rhode Island (with my birthplace Westerly being among the worst places hit) I have been fascinated by this event ever since I was a child.

What the Narragansett sea wall usually looks like

What the concrete Narragansett sea wall usually looks like

Reverse angle, after the storm

Reverse angle, after the storm. Somehow these hotels made it through!

The Edgewood Yacht Club, where my wedding reception was held 55 years later. It has since burned down

The Edgewood Yacht Club, where my wedding reception was held 55 years later. It has since burned down

While Sandy surpassed it in terms of economic cost (frankly because of the more extensive built environment that exists today), ’38 was a much worse storm, making landfall as a Category 3 (Sandy was a Category 2), and killing close to 700 people. While there have been a half dozen deadlier hurricanes in U.S. history, this was the worst one to hit the Northeast. And though the disaster occurred in relatively modern times (the age of radio, telephones, airplanes etc) the devastation was amplified by lack of both prediction and warning. People had no time to take precautions. Entire families were swept out to sea right in their houses. A school bus full of children coming home from school was swamped; all but one drowned. The Eastern end of Long Island, Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island were the worst hit, but the storm also headed north, also causing damage and loss of life in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Quebec.

1938 Hurricane Headline

Want to learn more? My high school English teacher conducted an oral history project in 1977, interviewing many of the survivors. You can learn about it here. 

And this article was excellent (and has many dramatic photos): http://www.oocities.org/hurricanene/hurr1938.htm

When the Duchess and I stayed at the Providence Biltmore a few months back we chanced to see the high water marks from the ’38 storm surge in their lobby — it was up over our heads. In the center of downtown Providence! Coincidentally, during that same stay we happened to see a cool documentary done by the History Channel, which I found both very thorough and very moving (although I could have done without Katherine Hepburn’s tale of woe.)

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