On Sept. 21, 1938, New Englanders started out enjoying what looked like a decent fall day. No one was paid attention to the 1938 hurricane headed up the coast. The Moore family had no reason to think they would take a miraculous ride to safety that day.
Weather forecasters told those who paid attention the storm had turned out to sea. The worst they should expect? A breezy day.
One man at the National Weather Bureau predicted the storm would, in fact, follow the devastating track of the hurricanes of 1635 and 1815. But his superiors overruled him, 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. The hurricane of 1938 crossed over the tip of Long Island, then slammed into New London, Conn., and raced up the Connecticut River Valley at 50 miles per hour.
It caused unprecedented destruction. In New London, high waters pushed a five-masted ship, Marsala, into a warehouse and then 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 went up in flames and part of the Cog Railway on Mt. Washington blew down. And in Vermont, the storm caused a train derailment and uprooted maple trees and apple orchards.
Rhode Island 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 ecause of the storm.
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.
The Miraculous Ride
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. They saw neighbors 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 then stepped back on to land and back into their lives.
Newsreel footage of the 1938 hurricane can be seen here.
This story was updated in 2021.