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
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.
Gordon realized his 1935 Ford pickup could hit 60 mph on paved roads, but on this shorter route of mostly dirt country roads, 60 mph would damn near shake the vehicle apart. He hated being so far away from his wife all day, but knew he was lucky to have a job, despite the nation’s depression and high unemployment rate. But he still didn’t like it.
He noticed something was different that afternoon when the sky turned a sickly yellow and the light breezes started whipping up. His war injury had been trying its best to warn him bad weather was coming, but the weather report on WPRO-AM disagreed, predicting only more of the same muggy weather and perhaps a slight chance of rain.
As the skies began getting darker, Gordon shook his head with the realization he and his shoulder could do a better job at predicting the day’s weather than any fancy scientist.
Peering out of his driver-side window, he noticed flocks of birds flying north. He decided he’d go a little faster and hoped Henry Ford had made the truck sturdy enough to withstand the beating it was about to receive, meanwhile saying a little prayer he wouldn’t have to borrow money to cover any major repairs.
Unknown to Gordon, forty miles south of him, vacationing families living near the beach and in low-lying areas were able to get to their roofs as the water level very rapidly rose over two stories. Thankfully, he didn’t find out until days later that the Gincardos, longtime Bendett family friends, were spending the last remnants of warm weather at their beach cottage. They barely made it to the top floor and would’ve drowned in the roiling waters if the porch roof hadn’t peeled off and provided a makeshift life raft.
Gordon was extremely nervous. He had lived through the category-five Labor Day hurricane when it struck Florida. Prior to separating from the Army in September of 1935, he was temporarily stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta and had volunteered to assist with clean-up efforts alongside the National Guard, VFW, and American Legion. Visions of the nearly total devastation sometimes appeared in nightmares and made him wary of sudden weather changes this time of year.
Right now, his paranoia was causing him to think of all the worst-case scenarios, especially with the baby due any day now. He stepped on the gas pedal harder, and the truck immediately responding by lurching forward, kicking up dust and rocks behind him, and shaking the frame so much he could no longer hear the radio.
When he started seeing building materials, lawn furniture, street signs, and toys flying past him, he knew his worst nightmare had come true. Rhode Island was experiencing its own weather disaster.
He was in South County, about twenty miles left between him and his family. It would normally have taken him about thirty or forty minutes to get home, but decided to increase his speed. He figured he could be there in twenty-five minutes tops — as long as the truck held up and God was on his side.
He was horrified to see, off in the distance, a tree flying through the air. All the blood left his face and his heart sank. The closer he got to town, the worse the damage and the more he worried about his wife.
Unknown to him, the hundred-foot-high storm surge had rolled through the beaches and downtown and had continued to advance up the Providence River, slamming into downtown Providence, destroying city docks, washing out shops, and killing many customers and pedestrians.
Shoppers had been sucked out of the stores through broken show windows, and he watched in horror as a piece of sheet metal flew through the air, cutting someone in half. Thirteen feet of water flooded most of lower Providence as falling trees crushed people trapped in their vehicles.
Gordon was able to close the gap between him and his wife with only about ten miles left to go. He pushed down hard on the gas pedal and sped faster into the storm while people sped past him in the opposite direction.
While turning a tight corner, the strong winds pulled an old oak tree out of the ground. It fell across the road a few car lengths in front of him. He smashed down the brake pedal, and his truck bucked and fishtailed on the dirt road. As his truck slid closer and closer to the downed tree, he knew this was it. What irony! He had made it through the big war at the age of sixteen only to die at home in a Washington Trust courier truck! In the milliseconds he had left, he promised God that, if He got him out of this in one piece, he’d go to church every Sunday.
Unable to completely stop in time, he was forced to turn the wheel hard and hope for the best. The left side of the truck hit the tree, scraping paint and aluminum from the hood all the way to the rear. The front left tire grabbed the tree trunk and lifted the vehicle into the air, causing it to flip on its side, slide down into the drainage ditch, and land hard on a boulder.
The crash slammed Gordon against the steering wheel and his forehead against the visor and windshield. He slumped onto the passenger side. Blood streamed from his forehead and scalp and into his eyes and mouth. The salty blood burned his eyes and, along with its metallic taste, brought him back to his senses. He ripped off a sleeve at the shoulder seam and wrapped the long strip of cloth tightly around his head like a bandana, slowing the bleeding.
Despite his dizziness, he managed to right himself and stand on the passenger door, pulling himself up onto the left side of the vehicle. The wind had picked up, and he could hear the sickening sounds of the storm destroying everything around him.
Luckily, Gordon’s house was on Tower Street in Westerly, a few houses down from the water tower at the top of a high hill. Because of this, Gordon was confident his house wouldn’t suffer any water damage, but there were plenty of old trees on the property and around the neighborhood that would be ripped out and tossed around, increasing the chances of catastrophic building damage.
In downtown Westerly, large plate-glass windows moved back and forth like they were made of rubber. A mailman was picked up by the wind and slammed into a telephone pole. Trees planted before the Civil War snapped and flew around like they were balsa wood.
Gordon left the wrecked truck and walked slowly at first, trying to get his sea legs, as his father liked saying. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, and he wasn’t as dizzy as he had been. He counted each step and imagined how many total steps remained between him and the warm embrace of his wife, his beautiful, very pregnant wife.
He started crying. Here he was, probably suffering from a concussion after almost dying in a car accident because he couldn’t avoid a fallen tree. He tried to pick up speed, but the wind gusts were so strong, he thought he might have to get down on all fours to prevent his body from flying backward.
He couldn’t stop his sobbing. He was brought up never to show emotion, never to let anyone see weakness in him as a husband, a father, and a grown man. But whatever this storm was going to take away from him, he most feared losing his family, a far greater possibility than losing control of his emotions.
As he struggled to continue walking through the gusts, he thought of every way he had wronged his love — every anniversary or birthday forgotten, every time he had been mad at her and yelled at her, every time he had made her cry. He couldn’t stop the tears and had as much control over them as he did over the wind that was dismantling the area piece by piece.
An hour later, Gordon finally made it into town. The damage he saw was breathtaking. When he had left that morning for Providence, people were in summer clothing, enjoying themselves without a care in the world. Now the town looked like the ruins of a bombed-out village in Europe.
A police car slowed down next to him, and the cop motioned for him to approach the vehicle. “What the hell are you doing out in this?”
“I got into an accident out on 91 in Ashaway, almost ran right into a giant oak. I have to get to my wife. She’s due any day now.”
“Oh, shit. Get in. Where do you live?”
“Top of Tower Street, number 56.”
” Okay, I have to turn around and go back through Oak Street.”
“All of downtown is under water. It’s a mess. I can’t believe you made it on foot from Ashaway.”
The officer turned the police car around in the middle of the street and headed toward Tower Street. Gordon stopped listening as the officer nervously recounted some of the awful things he’d seen and heard. He didn’t want to start crying again, especially not in front of the cop. He remembered a diversion technique he had taught himself when he was a kid. Pinching his thigh hard and focusing on the physical pain helped him control his emotional pain.
As the officer turned a corner, he almost sideswiped a utility pole that had fallen on only the driver’s side of a 1935 Chevy Standard. A woman was screaming in front of a five and dime whose front windows were smashed in, debris strewn around inside. He stopped the cruiser, turned on his emergency light, and exited. “Stay here,” he ordered.
Gordon absentmindedly disobeyed, looked around on the ground before setting foot outside to ensure he didn’t get electrocuted by any fallen power lines.
The officer was trying to get the woman to safety but she was inconsolable. Gordon gingerly walked around the rear of the Chevy and the pole that had demolished it. As he got closer, he was able to understand why the woman was in hysterics. Her husband was under the heavy pole, his skull crushed along with the steering column and dashboard.
No matter how gruesome a scene, somehow Gordon’s mind saw only the wedding band that was still on the man’s ring finger. He noted how clean and normal the hand looked as if the guy was still alive and would come out from under the pole and dust himself off. This man was about the same age as he, maybe a little younger, perhaps recently married. His wife’s life had been ruined forever by a single moment in time.
All of the emotions Gordon had been trying to hold back since the accident returned to the surface. A surge of adrenaline accompanied the panic attack he was once again experiencing. He started running toward his home, still limping, clothes soaked, and didn’t even think to thank the policeman who was now yelling for him to return, warning him how dangerous it was to be out in the storm. Gordon just wanted, — no, needed — to see his wife. He had to hold her in his arms, to know she and the baby and Lee were okay.
Walking past each building, he tried not to take notice of all of the damage. Broken windows, roofs missing, trees on top of homes and cars. All that he saw added to the nightmarish images he was trying to ignore of what he might find when he got home.
Suddenly, a large tree branch flew right at Gordon as if Mother Nature herself had decided to stop him from seeing his one true love ever again. He quickly moved to the right so that all he suffered were scratches from the ends of the branches.
Gordon finally turned onto Tower Street. Elm trees on both sides of the street had fallen and those that hadn’t were bent over so far they wouldn’t be intact for much longer.
Gordon could feel the steep incline in his calves, adding to all of his aches and pains. He was thirsty, cold, and sweating at the same time, and could feel his heart beating so hard he thought it was either going to burst out of his chest or he would just drop dead of a heart attack.
When he was only two houses away from Dot, the whole day’s events started washing over him like a bad dream. He didn’t even realize that he was sobbing. All of the emotions from his harrowing journey home today and from his time as a sixteen-year-old at the end of World War I mingled together.
The adrenaline receded when he could finally see his house. It looked intact from his point of view. His next-door neighbor’s home also looked pretty good except for some lost shingles, storm shutters, and debris that littered the yard and street.
His yard looked much the same as his neighbors’ and then realized something was missing. Ah! his mailbox. The post it sat on had snapped at the base.
Gordon walked quickly to the front door. When he pulled open the screen door, a gust of wind ripped it off. The door flew across the porch and disappeared into the bushes.
He unlocked the front door.
She and Lee were curled up at one end of the couch. Dot put down their wedding album she had been holding close to her heart and carefully stood up, finding her center of gravity with her belly so far out ahead of her feet.
Gordon was sobbing at this point, unable to stop and without caring one bit. “Honey! Dot?” Gordon limped over to her, sobbing in deep, bassy tones.
Dorothy held out her arms and Gordon fell to his knees, his energy and feelings draining out of him. He wrapped his arms around her belly, his ear planted squarely up against her, trying to hear any sound or feel any kick from their little baby.
Dorothy placed her hands on top of his head, cradling him as he started to wail loudly. “I’m so sorry for being an imperfect man, Dot. I love you so much — and Lee and the baby. I don’t deserve any of you.”
Dorothy gently lifted his chin so they were looking at each other. “Gordon, you have nothing to apologize for. Look! You came home to us in THIS. There has not been one day, not one minute that you have ever failed me or this family. Your heart is big enough to keep us all safe, warm, and prosperous, of that I have no doubt.”
The story of Gordon and Dorothy is fictional. Many of the details in the story regarding the damage and events of the 1938 hurricane are taken from the public record.
“The 1938 hurricane was the worst natural disaster in American history — a gale that wreaked more death and havoc than either the great Chicago fire or the San Francisco earthquake. Even today, the numbers are startling. Almost 700 people perished as the result of the storm, and 2,000 were injured. More than 63,000 people lost their homes. Almost 20,000 public and private buildings were destroyed, and 100 bridges had to be rebuilt. The cost of the damage totaled more than ($7 Billion in 2020 dollars). Only about four percent of the businesses lost were insured. Many, struggling to stay afloat through the Great Depression, finally sank in the Great Hurricane.”
*Hurricane from space photo is public domain 1.0.