Once upon a time, in late September, when the children were back in school and they were closing down Ocean Beach for the season, the hurricane of 1938 came sweeping up the coast.
People had suffered for a decade in the Great Depression that created such hardships. The last thing Eastern Connecticut needed was the storm of the century, which blew in on Sept. 21, 1938.
I was a boy of 9 and remember so distinctly the windows in our school started to pop out, and some big trees had fallen. The wind was howling, and word came to send the children home. There were no school buses. Wind gusts reached 185 miles an hour at the height of the storm, and the children were in the streets.
It had been raining for days. The rivers were swollen, and many dams upstream were in danger of breaking. In Putnam, the French River cut the city in half. People at the mill on the side of the river couldn’t get to their homes on the other side. The Baltic Dam broke and sent a wall of water down the Shetucket. At about the same time, the tidal wave hit the coast, and the storm surge came up the Thames. Downtown Norwich was under water, as were the little towns built on river banks, because the mills needed the water power.
What happened in Norwich paled compared to New London, where, in addition to the wind and flooding, a fire raged downtown, burning out of control in the whipping wind.
The wind hit Ocean Beach and toppled those little, badly constructed houses. Ocean Beach was never built to last. The 1938 hurricane blew it down, and the high water washed it away.
From Putnam to New London, martial law was imposed. All power lines were down, so there were no telephones. The high winds had destroyed homes, knocked down church steeples, and tore the slate roof off of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In Norwich, school children who went to Broadway School or Norwich Free Academy and lived on the West Side could not get home. The river cut the city in three parts. Parents had no idea if their children were safe. As darkness fell, the calamity worsened. There was water and destruction everywhere.
A War Zone
In Groton, Groton Long Point was wrecked, but not as badly as Westerly and Atlantic Beach. Like a war zone, the body count started right after the storm in Westerly. Headlines reported 89 dead and another 100 missing. Westerly High School became a makeshift morgue. Dozens of bodies were picked up along the beaches and laid out in the gymnasium to be identified.
Anyone who lived through that storm remembers everything they did that day. I was only 9 and remember how the winds howled. It rained sideways. The windows in our house blew out. It was strange. The windows didn’t break in; the broke out, like an explosion. Then the wind stopped, the rain stopped, and the sun came out. We all went into the streets to view the damage. It was over.
But it wasn’t over. What we saw was the eye of the hurricane. It was only half over. In moments, the skies darkened again, the winds churned up from the opposite direction, and the rain came down in torrents. The sound was like that of a locomotive. Families watched all of their possessions destroyed.
When the second blast finally passed to the north, the sun did come out. There was a beautiful sunset, but then, everything went totally black. Houses were lighted with candles. Some people went to bed that night not knowing where their children were.
Cleaning up after the hurricane was made difficult in so many ways. There was no communication, no electricity. City agencies didn’t know where their help was most needed. Families were fighting to reunite all of their members. Those along the beach, in many cases, were identifying the bodies of dead family members. In the Westerly newspaper, it was almost like reporting a war. They ran columns of the dead, just like reporting those killed in combat during the war.
Atlantic Beach, now Misquamicut, was totally washed away. Watch Hill and, farther down the coast, all the little beaches suffered massive destruction. The railroad tracks were uprooted from New Haven to Providence. Providence was completely under water, but as they started to pick up the pieces in Groton, New London and Norwich, they found trees had torn down the power lines had fallen across the roads. Every avenue to hospitals and fire departments was blocked.
It was 1938, and there were no power saws. Every tree would be cut by hand. One small but important item, the hardware stores didn’t have the thousands of axes and saws that were needed.
The hurricane of 1938 was a disaster, as one might say, “The Perfect Storm.” It came without warning at all and traveled directly through southeastern Connecticut, spent itself to the north in Vermont and finally died in Montreal.
It destroyed so many lives and changed so many others. Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island would never look the same. That hurricane changed everything, but from the massive destruction in New London, Ocean Beach would be reborn and opened just prior to another hardship. As people put their lives back together, the entire world would change again as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and ushered in America’s time in World War II.