On Sept. 21, 1938, New Englanders started out enjoying what looked to be a decent fall day. No one was paying much attention to the 1938 hurricane headed up the coast. And those who did care were reassured by the weather forecasters that it had turned out to sea. The worst they should expect was a breezy day.
One man at the National Weather Bureau predicted that the storm would, in fact, follow the devastating track of the hurricanes of 1635 and 1815, but he was overruled, and the forecast for the day called for good weather.
Estimates vary, but at least 400 people perished that day and maybe as many as 800 as the hurricane of 1938 crossed over the tip of Long Island, slammed into New London, Conn., and raced up the Connecticut River Valley at 50 miles per hour.
The destruction was unprecedented. In New London, a five-masted ship, Marsala, was pushed by high waters into a warehouse and started a fire that demolished a quarter-mile section of the city’s business district.
As the storm passed the Milton Observatory in Massachusetts, 186 m.p.h. wind gusts were recorded. Up into New Hampshire, Peterborough was in flames and part of the Cog Railway on Mt. Washington was blown down. And in Vermont, the storm caused a train derailment and uprooted maple trees and apple orchards.
It was Rhode Island that got the worst of it. Parts of downtown Providence were under 14 feet of water, with people sheltering on the second and third floors of buildings. In Westerly, R.I., 100 people died.
Perhaps the most astounding story of the storm comes from the Moore family of Westerly. As the storm grew stronger, the family tried to evacuate their beachfront home, but could not. As the ocean waves began surging into the house, Catherine Moore recalls her father bracing against the front door literally trying to hold back the ocean.
As the family moved first to the second floor and finally to the third floor to stay above the storm surge, they watched as house after house succumbed and neighbors were washed away. Finally, the waves overwhelmed their own house, lifting it off its foundation.
“Next thing I knew, we were floating,” Moore recalled. “We were on the water with the waves crashing over us, and part of the house still attached, one of the walls still attached to this piece of floor, and it almost acted as a sail.”
In all, 10 people clung to that bit of floor as it hurdled across the sound to land in Connecticut, where the family stepped back on to land and back into their lives.
The Moores' story is told as part of a documentary about the storm. You can watch it here:
Newsreel reporting on the storm can be seen here:
This story was updated from the 2013 version.