The Great Hurricane of 1938

While hurricanes are certainly not uncommon in New England, few were as disastrous and destructive as the Great Hurricane of 1938, which struck without much warning and caused extensive damage in New England, particularly in eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.  September 21 marks the anniversary of this storm 74 years ago, a storm that killed more than 500 people and caused millions of dollars in damage.  Especially destructive was the tidal wave created by the storm, which caused special havoc along the shoreline and flooded tidal basins and rivers.  Downtown Providence, R.I., at the head of Narragansett Bay, suffered extensive flooding damage, for instance; I can remember one of my aunts recalling how she had to retreat to the attic of the building in which she was working in Providence at the time when the flood struck.

Many textile mills suffered damage from the winds, which tore off roofs and smashed windows uncovering the interiors; machinery and stock was further damaged from rain or broken sprinkler systems.  The photo below shows damage to the Warwick Mills in Centerville, R.I., where a partial roof collapse has led to damage in the interior.

While the damage seems severe, you can see from the following image that only one end of the fourth floor of the Warwick Mills actually suffered damage.

The destruction from the flooding occasioned by the hurricane and tidal waves was multiplied by several days of rain prior to the storm, leading to saturated ground and rivers and streams already near flood stage.  Note the damage to the street outside the Hockanum Mills in Rockville, Conn., where the force of the flooding has torn up the concrete.

This one-story shed near the railroad tracks in Rockville, Conn., has been lifted off its foundation during the flooding—in fact, it’s quite possible that the building was not originally situated near the tracks but was deposited there by the storm.

Nowadays, weather forecasters start talking about a possible storm days before its anticipated arrival, and the latest forecasting techniques can provide a reasonably accurate estimate of which track a hurricane will follow and a timeline for its arrival.  It is unlikely that a hurricane in New England would result in the number of fatalities compared to the Great Hurricane of 1938.  But it’s fascinating to see the power of Mother Nature.

Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian


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