Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World
About the time Stan Higginbotham looked out of the bank and saw that people were grabbing their hats as they crossed Dixon Square in Westerly, the worst Atlantic hurricane in well over a century was bearing down with 200-mph winds on the villages, summer houses, and produce farms of Long Island’s fashionable Hamptons. The impact of the storm would register on a seismograph in Sitka, Alaska. In its path lay the richest industrialized seaboard in the world — and 13 million unsuspecting people.
In Westhampton a farmer saw the roof of his chicken house peeled off in an instant and 1,200 hens vanish in a deafening swirl of debris — house shutters, business awnings, tree limbs. Piece by piece, 200 Hampton houses began to come apart like paper, and the steeple of Sag Harbor’s famous Old Whaler’s Church smashed to the ground. In seconds all of Long Island’s phones were dead and power was out. In a matter of minutes, 50 people were crushed or drowned under collapsing houses and raging waters that boiled from the sea.
Sucked along by a trough of still, muggy air and a ground surface that had been saturated by days of heavy rain, the eye of the hurricane was advancing at 60 mph — roughly the velocity of a tornado — when it hit Connecticut’s shoreline shortly before 3:00 P.M.
In Stonington, Bill Cawley had stopped by the high-school playing field to watch practice and chat with the football coach. Trees around the field, he realized, were suddenly doubled over. The coach abruptly canceled practice, and the reporter raced for the newspaper office.
In downtown Westerly the large windows of the Morris Plan Company waved as if they were made of sheets of rubber. Staring out, Stan Higginbotham saw bricks flying through Dixon Square. As he watched, trees planted in the town’s park before the Revolutionary War were uprooted or toppled over “like bowling pins, one after the other.” Right in front of him, a postman was picked up and dashed into a light pole.
At a small grocery store a few blocks away, Stan’s next-door neighbor and pal Don Friend, also 20, watched the roof of the Pawcatuck Congregational Church fly by. He was worried. His mother Ruth had gone to Misquamicut with the Mothers’ Club from Christ Church.
Stan Higginbotham called home to see if his mother and dad and brother had gone back to the beach, praying they hadn’t. There was no answer. He called his girlfriend Jean Meikle at the telephone company and suggested they use her car to drive to Misquamicut and check on them. His 1929 Essex was parked out at the beach cottage.
By the time the couple reached her family’s house on Highland Avenue in Westerly, the Pawcatuck River had spilled over its banks and flooded downtown Westerly. The presses of the Sun were standing in four feet of water. Phones and power were out. The couple decided to wait for the raging wind to subside before heading for the beach. They hoped the situation would be better out there.
At Watch Hill during gales people sometimes gathered to watch the dramatic breakers. Harold, Irene, and Jimmy Higginbotham did just that. Their folly was compounded by a cruel natural coincidence: because of the phase of the moon, tides were running about a foot above normal. Also the storm struck on an incoming tide.
Quickly realizing their mistake, the trio hurried back to the cottage behind the sand barrier in Misquamicut to gather their things and get out. On their flight for higher ground they stopped at another cottage to pick up a young woman named Alma Bailey, who was dating their third son Ken. He was at his fraternity house at the University of Rhode Island, 30 miles away, watching trees snap.
Accounts still vary on the size of the tidal wave that struck the unprotected barrier beaches that stretch from Watch Hill to Point Judith. It has been described as anywhere from 30 to 80 feet high. What is known, however, is that 500 cottages sat on or around those normally tranquil beaches. And in those 500 houses, hundreds of people were riding out the storm.
Racing to make the higher ground of what was known as Shore Road, the Higginbothams found themselves trapped when their car stalled in rapidly rising flood waters. Harold shepherded everyone out of the car and into a nearby two-story cottage. They were barely inside the door when an explosion of water chased them up the stairs. On the second floor, Harold smashed out a window. The water rose to their waists. He desperately helped Alma out the window, advising her to grab hold of floating debris. Next, he put Jimmy on a large piece of flotsam, perhaps a door. Then he turned to help his wife. Irene was nowhere in sight. He called her name desperately just as the house began to splinter. The next minute, flailing in the churning water himself, Harold heard Jimmy’s terrified voice. Seconds later, Jimmy was thrown from his makeshift raft and disappeared.
In a matter of seconds at Watch Hill, the yacht club, a public bathhouse, and 39 cottages were ripped from Napatree Point and swept toward the Connecticut shore across the mouth of the Pawcatuck River. Forty-two people were inside.
Trapped in their disintegrating house, the Geoffrey Moores and their employees huddled upstairs in the attic and felt the floor begin to buckle wildly. Three of the children wore life jackets. They clutched rosaries, yet were remarkably calm. As the house slid away beneath them, however, the children began to cry. Harriet Moore reassured them. Moments later, the roof blew off the maid’s room — it was the best thing they would have for a raft, so with Andy Pupillo’s assistance, all ten people clambered aboard. Clutching each other and jagged wall pipes as huge waves broke over them, the Moore party drifted toward the open water of the bay.
The same wave that swept the houses from their foundations at Misquamicut Beach sent a massive wall of water up the Providence River toward downtown Providence. The killer wave, 100 feet high, crushed the city’s docks and broke near City Hall, drowning dozens of startled pedestrians in shops, doorways, and their own automobiles. The great skylight of the Providence Library came crashing down.
In his dorm at Brown University junior Bob Perry, whose family kept a summer place near the dunes at Weekapaug, adjacent to Misquamicut, looked out and saw slate shingles from the roof embedding themselves in century-old elms. His first thought was that everyone at home would probably be okay; the intensity of the storm made him think it couldn’t possibly be happening anywhere else.
In downtown Providence a flying sheet of fabricated metal cut a man in half. Display windows blew out of shops; a woman was sucked through a restaurant’s plate-glass window. Falling trees crushed motorists in their cars. A rat floated down Main Street, bobbing on an empty gasoline can. Living-room furniture, office desks, restaurant tables, a biblical tide of struggling people and everyday objects swirled down Main Street.
When the wave subsided, the downtown district was under 13 feet of water. The headlights of thousands of automobiles shone eerily underwater. Bob Perry, safe on the hill at Brown, got chills listening to the wail of sirens and shorting auto horns.