January 16, 2020

The Hurricane.

Wednesday. September 21, 1938.

Gordon and Dot worried that the new baby would have a harelip like their toddler, Lee, was born with and would need expensive surgery to repair it. It must run in the family, they had decided. Both Gordon’s dad and brother had been born with a harelip. Since the family couldn’t afford repair surgery, each wore a cover-up mustache and short beard. 

Meanwhile, Mother Nature had her own plans regarding the weather. The official hurricane season for the East Coast, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico is from June through November with the peak being from mid-August to late October.

In 1938, without satellites and a formal aerial hurricane monitoring program, hurricanes were tracked by direct observation. In this case, sailors reported a hurricane headed toward Florida, so the weather bureau notified Floridians to take shelter. In a twist of fate, the hurricane changed direction, missing the Sunshine State, and turned to the north. 

So far, it had been a pleasant fall day in Westerly. In fact, it had been almost uncomfortably muggy all week — a welcome break from what had been a dismal rainy summer. Summer people who usually left their beach homes to return to their homes in the north were still in town enjoying the unseasonably warm September

Looking down Atlantic Ave. Misquamicut, RI 1938. Public Domain.

Around 2:15 pm that afternoon, a fisherman on Long Island Sound saw what he thought was a massive fog bank rolling in. Actually, it was a giant storm surge sixty to eighty feet high, rolling toward the southern New England coastline, soon wiping out beach cottages up and down the coast. 

By 3 pm, the hurricane had made itself known to Westerly residents. Moving at about 60 mph, the hurricane hit the area with over 200 mph winds. and wiped out beach cottages all up and down the coast. People trying to escape started getting trapped as the storm surge flooded low-lying areas.

Trees were ripped out of the ground to become projectiles, and roofs were ripped off buildings. Within the hour, downtown Westerly was flooded, power was out, and people were trapped on the higher floors of banks and businesses.

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