An unmatched fury 70 years later

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Sept. 21, 1938, began as a perfect day for the beach along the Southern New England coast. It ended with the most violent and destructive natural disaster in the region’s history, a storm that arrived almost without warning, with large waves, a destructive storm surge and powerful winds that “scarred both a landscape and a generation.”

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At 8 a.m., the first reports came in of a hurricane coming up the coast, and storm warnings were posted from Atlantic City, N.J., north to Sandy Hook. Few people heard them in time. The storm system was moving nearly 60 mph, and its high winds and torrential rains struck by late afternoon. A rainbow appeared briefly; it quickly disappeared, and darkness descended.

The extreme storm surge left almost the entire coast, from New Haven, Conn., to southern Rhode Island, under water. In Providence, R.I., there were reports of 17 feet of water downtown and 60 people dead. In Watch Hill, R.I., 50 died as their beach homes were swept off a spit and into Little Narragansett Bay. A school bus with children was swept off a causeway on Conanicut Island. In New London, Conn., there was flood and fire at the same time.

In the aftermath, the Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts were littered with the remnants of civilization — boats, cars, furniture, houses. Entire rows of buildings collapsed. One eyewitness driving in the aftermath described the scene: “There was a large cabin cruiser squarely in our lane on the Post Road. To our right, in the meadow by the roadside, parts of a house were scattered. We passed around the cruiser and saw a few rowboats and a small shanty jammed against the guardrail.” And “everywhere, trees, trees, trees — gone forever.”

In all, the storm — known as both the New England Hurricane of 1938 and the Long Island Express — left 600 to 700 dead, damaged 75,000 buildings, and sank 3,000 boats, according to Red Cross estimates. Utility companies estimated 10,000 miles of telephone and electric cable came down. In New England, it’s still the storm by which all others are measured.

The photo was taken in Essex, Conn., and is typical of scenes all along the Rhode Island and Connecticut coasts. Remarkably, the two buildings in the picture not only survived the hurricane, but still stand today.

— Steve Knauth