Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook the World
The world now knew about the horror at Westerly.
That same day Stan and Ken Higginbotham learned the fate of their little brother Jimmy. He was found, unclothed, under eight feet of rubble, near Brightman’s Pond. “At the high school, when I picked him up,” recalls Stan,” a photographer wanted to take my picture with him. I picked up a fireman’s axe and almost killed the poor fellow. A doctor determined that Jimmy didn’t drown. He died of fright.”
On Friday afternoon, employing antique handpress, the editors of the Sun put out an emergency edition of the paper that listed the local dead and injured. Telegrams were pouring into the newspaper and Red Cross offices from all over the world, inquiring about the fate of loved ones. Doctors, it was reported, were giving emotionally shattered relief workers sleeping pills to permit them to rest.
Four days later, not far from where her husband had washed up on Shore Road, search crews, following the scent of decaying bodies, finally found the remains of Irene Higginbotham.
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 $400 million in 1938 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.
In the “wind that shook the world,” as it was later called, New England lost more than 25 percent of its cherished elms. “The greens and commons of New England,” lamented an editorialist. “will never be the same.” Over half a million property deeds had to be resurveyed because of storm damage. In New Hampshire alone, one and a half billion board feet of timber were knocked down; the recovery of “storm” lumber would take years. When war broke out in Europe, much of the lumber was used to build military barracks and the interiors of transport ships.
Perhaps the only other good to come from the disaster was when an outraged Congress ordered that the U.S. Weather Service be systematically improved so that such a tragedy could never happen again.
In Westerly today, where quarries once produced the granite for most of the monuments at Gettsyburg, two generations have come and gone, and there are no monuments to the hurricane that changed every life in town. If you are seeking landmarks, people will send you to the high-water mark on the wall of the Westerly Sun pressroom, and to a small brass plaque attached to a rock that shows where the raging waters rose on the Misquamicut golf course. The real monuments, people say, are in lives pieced back together after the tragedy.
Bill Cawley was cited by the Associated Press for his “courage and enterprise” in getting the story of Westerly’s ordeal to the outside world. After serving with the Air Force during World War 11, he returned to Westerly and went back to work for the Sun, becoming sports editor in 1965 and retiring in 1982. “I became, in a way, a kind of celebrity,” he reports. “For years, people wrote to me from all over the world wanting to know more or about someone from here they once knew.”
No monuments were ever built in Westerly, he suggests, “Because the hurricane acted as a prelude to world war — we were just getting started, turns out.” He cannot pass the place where the old high-school gym once stood, now a peaceful town park, without remembering the lines of corpses laid out on the floor.
Bob Perry, a retired banker, still drives to his family house out on Winnapaug Point. He passes million-dollar houses built on the sands of Misquamicut, new cottages, water slides, and penny arcades. He marvels at the wonders of flood insurance, regularly taps his barometer, and ponders the unspeakable: “If it happened today, with 10 times the population and so many year-round residences…” he speculates — and draws silent.
Every September the hurricane’s victims, especially the ladies of the Mothers’ Club, are remembered in the prayers of Christ Church. On the wall a small lamp bums in their memory. A move has begun to raise funds for a larger memorial.
For the past 24 years Don Friend has lived out at the beach, near Brightman’s Pond, where his mother perished. He and Ken Higginbotham, he reports, often go sailing in Ken’s 24-foot Bristol sloop. “But we never leave the protected bay,” he adds soberly. “Never.”
Stan Higginbotham, who retired a few years ago after selling Chevrolets in town for 34 years, spends a lot of time thinking about what happened to his father and, oddly enough, his ’29 Essex.
Harold Higginbotham lost his job soon after the hurricane when American Thread shut its doors and moved out of town. For a pension Harold was given a modest $1,000 — or about $500 less than he needed to bury his wife and youngest son. He never found a steady job in town again. “He was a proud man. Friends gave him odd jobs to do,” says Stan. Finally, near the end of his life, Harold moved to Massachusetts and found a position at a mill. He died in 1978.