Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World
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.
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.