Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World
This Yankee classic is from September 1988.
For the first time his wife Irene could ever remember, Harold Higginbotham decided not to go to work. It had been rainy and muggy all week along the stretch of Atlantic Coast from New London, Connecticut, to Point Judith, Rhode Island — a fitting conclusion to a summer that had been pretty much of a washout. Even though school had resumed and it was the third week of September, many families lingered on in cottages at summer beach colonies near the border towns of Westerly and Pawcatuck, hoping for one last break in the dark skies.
All week Harold, a foreman at the American Thread Company in Pawcatuck, and Irene and two of their three sons, Jimmy, 10, and Stanley, 20, had been staying in a small cottage on Montauk Avenue at Misquamicut Beach. Harold had been fighting off a cold, which on the evening of September 20, 1938, grew worse. The family packed up and drove five miles home to West Broad Street in Pawcatuck.
But they got a surprise the next morning. The weather cleared dramatically. There was just a riffle of breeze from the southeast and a benediction of warm sun. It was the kind of fine morning people had been waiting for all summer.
As the fishing fleet put out from harbors up and down the coast, sailboats appeared in Little Narragansett Bay, and college boys hired to close up the big summer houses of Watch Hill stripped off their shirts. Striped umbrellas appeared. Beach outings were hastily assembled.
At Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly, just before 10 that morning, a dozen women from the Mothers’ Club assembled with their rector for a drive to the beach and a picnic at the Clark cottage. At their handsome house in Watch hill, Mr. And Mrs. Geoffrey L. Moore, their four small children, a visiting relative, two family employees, and a college boy named Andy Pupillo were also talking about the sudden spell of good weather. There was some talk of strolling down to the Watch Hill carousel to take a ride on the famous carved wooden horses with their real agate eyes.
Sometime before lunch Stan Higginbotham got a telephone call from his mother at the Morris Plan Company, a bank where he worked as a teller. She explained that his father was feeling better. It seemed a shame to waste such fine weather, so she and Jimmy were taking Harold back out to the cottage at Misquamicut. Stan and his girlfriend Jean, she suggested, could join them there after Stan got off work at five.
Young Westerly Sun reporter Bill Cawley was just checking his beat at the Stonington City Hall and cursing his luck at having to work on such a nice day. City Hall was dead, and it would be a slow news day, yet he couldn’t shake “an eerie feeling . . . something in the air, like a kind of suspension was about to end.”
Cawley thought he was merely reading the social weather of the times: there were still some 10.5 million Americans out of work, and President Roosevelt had just recently declared the beginning of “the real drive on the Depression.”
On that morning the New York Times ran an editorial praising the U.S. Weather Service for keeping Americans so well informed about potentially hazardous weather movements, especially tropical cyclones or Atlantic hurricanes. The forecast for New York on that same day was cloudy and cool weather with increasing winds.
At the bottom of page one of that day’s Westerly Sun, however, a small AP wire story reported that a “tropical hurricane” would pass far off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, “sometime in the next 12 hours.” Floridians were boarding up and fetching candles. The storm, which came out of the Cape Verde Islands and had first been sighted on September 16 by the captain of a Brazilian freighter 350 miles northeast of Puerto Rico, was expected to cause high tides in the Carolinas and Virginia before turning harmlessly out to sea.
Fishermen and bathers in Narragansett Bay noticed that the light had developed a peculiar yellow tint. The breeze was clearly picking up. Almost everyone could read the weather signs — yet another line storm was coming. It was almost predictable, they remarked, given the dreary way summer had gone. Some packed up and went home. Others stayed. In faraway Vermont a dairy farmer paused in his field, marveling. He could actually smell the sea.
In 1938 the U. S. Weather Service was but a shadow of its future self. For vital information, historian William Manchester has pointed out, “it relied on the 16th-century thermometer, the 17th-century mercurial barometer, and the medieval weather vane.” Meteorologists depended entirely on observations from merchant ships and aircraft to formulate forecasts. It was easier to know where a tropical storm wasn’t, it was often said with amusement, than where a tropical storm was.
At about 2:15 that afternoon, a Long Island fisherman saw a huge fog bank rolling in fast from the ocean. He had never seen fog quite so dense, nor a fog bank move so fast. And then he realized his terrible mistake. He wasn’t looking at fog, but at a churning wall of water.
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