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Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World

Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World
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Around 6:00 P.M. in Westerly, the wind abruptly died, and the air grew menacingly cold. Bill Cawley made his way from the newspaper office to the police station where, right on his heels, a pale half-dressed man in the early stages of shock appeared. “Watch Hill is gone,” he mumbled dazedly. “It’s all washed away.” Cawley and a policeman didn’t believe him. They decided to go investigate.

Others were also heading to the beaches. Don Friend and his father Frank were in their Model A trying to find a way across the boiling Pawcatuck. Also headed to Misquamicut, Stan Higginbotham, Jean Meikle, and a neighbor were stopped by a policeman, who commandeered their vehicle and ordered them to deliver badly needed morphine and other medical supplies to Westerly Hospital. After that, the group drove toward Watch Hill, but the road was soon under water. They turned on Shore Road and came to a halt.

“There, across the road, as high as a house,” remembers Stan, “was the largest pile of rubble I had ever seen. It was unimaginable. We got out, and a young policeman and I started to climb the mountain of debris. I saw a human hand sticking out. Even though it was utterly shocking, I thought that when we got to the top of the pile we would probably find Mom and Dad and Jimmy perching on a roof somewhere.”

What they saw instead was a “mountain of rubble of destroyed houses and dead bodies that stretched out of sight.” The group went from house to house along Shore Road to search for survivors. Near dusk, they reached the Oaks Inn, which stood on higher ground. The proprietor saw them coming and yelled, “Stan, your father’s inside!”

Stan found his father in an upstairs room at the inn “sobbing like a baby. They had found him stark naked and full of sea water. Alma Bailey had also survived, with a broken leg. The owner of the inn had pumped my Dad full of booze to make him throw up all that salt water. All he said to me between sobs was, ‘Stan, they’re out there somewhere. Go get ’em.’ ”

But darkness was falling; there was nothing to do but wait for dawn. Stan and Jean drove three hours over precarious roads to the university, where they picked up Ken and brought him back to Jean’s house in Westerly. They huddled around a single gas-jet flame trying to keep warm until morning.

About the same time that Stan found his father, the Geoffrey Moores and their entourage found themselves washed up on the debris-strewn shore of Barn Island, on the Connecticut side of the Pawcatuck. Everyone was bruised, cut, and full of sea water — but otherwise miraculously well. Shoeless, they stumbled through briars to the remains of a barn. While Harriet Moore got her shivering children arranged under the hay, Andy Pupillo went to look for help. He saw lights flickering on the shore, heard voices, and called out, but there was no answer. He returned to the group and cradled one of the small children in his arms.

“The stars came out and the wind died down,” Harriet Moore told a reporter later. They saw light in the southern sky — the glow of New London on fire. They talked and hugged each other, trying to get warm. “We called out intermittently all night long,” she reflected. “Of course, we did not know the catastrophe was so far reaching.”

Harriet Moore was not alone in her ignorance. All over dark, battered New England, thousands of huddling refugees were asking themselves that same question: how extensive had the great storm been? Why hadn’t they been warned?

By the next morning — survivors remember it as being a glorious sunrise –news of the devastation had barely reached New York; and from isolated places like Westerly it would require days to get the story out to the world.

Units of the National Guard and Civilian Conservation Corps were stationed on roads leading to Westerly’s beaches as hastily organized search parties headed that way at dawn. Among them were Bill Cawley and Charlie Utter (whose family owned the Westerly Sun), Don Friend, Stan and Ken Higginbotham, and several volunteers from Ken’s fraternity who drove down to help search for survivors.

The grim labor of digging through the piled-up houses commenced. There was an aura of unreality about the work: someone found a woman’s severed finger with a beautiful diamond ring on it. Dogs chained to posts had gone mad trying to free themselves. Picking up a board, Stan found the body of his Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Bishop. One by one, bodies were transported into Westerly and lined up in a makeshift morgue in the gym at the city high school. Stan identified the body of Don Friend’s mother, Ruth; the other ladies of Christ Church were found nearby.

Bill Cawley set out for New Haven around 4:00 A.M. on Friday. Driving over golf courses and through backyards to avoid downed power lines and uprooted trees, talking his way through police and military barricades, Cawley finally staggered into the office of the Associated Press several hours later. An editor on duty refused to believe the horror story he told about Westerly. As authorizing calls were placed to Washington, Cawley sat down to write his first-person account. His story broke on the front page of the Washington, D.C., Evening Star that afternoon.

“I reached the outside world today after witnessing the scenes of horror and desolation that came in the hours after a tidal wave, hurled miles inland by a hurricane, engulfed Westerly, Rhode Island, my home, two days ago.

“I counted bodies — row upon sickening row of them — stretched out in the old town high school after all the city’s morgues were filled. When I left at four o’clock this morning, there were 74 dead and almost 100 missing…”

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3 Responses to Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World

  1. Yoma Hitchcock October 12, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    I was only a year and a half when the 1938 hurricane hit. The hurricane did a lot of damage on Cape Cod in the Buzzards Bay area.

    I enjoyed reading this well written article about the hurricane.

    I do enjoy reading all the Yankee stories. The stories are living history of New England.

  2. Bryan Schaumloffel December 3, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    A great read! I teach United States History at Westhampton Beach Middle School on Long Island. Our sports teams used to be known as the Green Wave. After the ’38 Hurricanes we are now known as the Westhampton Beach Hurricanes. I have met a few of the old timers that survived the Hurricane, the stories from Westhampton are unbelievable. The destruction and death toll on Long Island echos the accounts in this story.

  3. nancy January 14, 2015 at 8:37 am #

    So sad so many people lost there lives in the 38 hurricane.I remember my mother telling me stories about it.we live in little rhody and there are still cement foundations in the sand at the beach where houses stood.

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