Hurricane of 1938 | The Wind That Shook 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…”
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.