The hurricane started out as a Category 5 and hit land as a Category 3. It swept up the coast, leaving hundreds of buildings destroyed and people displaced. In the city, winds blew at 76 miles per hour; elsewhere they reached up to 100. As one radio announcer reported, “slate roofing and shingles flew like confetti.” At a Boston airport, a grounded airliner was blown across the field where it was parked and into a swamp. The whole of New England was taking a beating.
But the most damage came with the flooding, and the worst of all in Rhode Island. After the hurricane, a tidal surge rose up and swept inland across the coastal plain. Towns all along the shore were submerged, some even washed away entirely. Low-lying Providence was particularly vulnerable, and the waters rose to almost fourteen feet above sea level. Downtown, people took refuge in the top floors of office buildings, while elsewhere others caught off guard clung to rooftops or floating debris. The power went out, the phone lines went down.
Then there was the looting. Abandoned stores with windows broken by the heavy winds made easy targets, and the city quickly fell into disorder. As witness David Cornel De Jong described, “there were hordes, assisting each other. They were brazen and insatiable; they swarmed like rats; they took everything. When a few policemen came past in a rowboat, they didn’t stop their looting. They knew they outnumbered the police.” The government dispatched the National Guard, to try to maintain civility. The New York Times reported that in Woonsocket, 25 National Guardsmen armed with bayonets “restored order” to the young looters raiding jewelry and dress stores.
After the dud of a storm that was Hurricane Earl, this might seem fantastic, like some worst-case scenario dreamed up by the local news. But despite recent evidence to the contrary, New England really can get real hurricanes. This was the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 (hurricanes weren’t given peoples’ names until 1953). It was one of the worst hurricanes ever to strike New England, and Rhode Island was the hardest hit. Of the approximately 600 people who died, almost half were from Rhode Island. Whole families and even whole communities were swept away, and two months later people were still reported missing. Since then, only Hurricane Carol in 1954 has caused as much flooding and destruction in Providence. The worst Earl did was threaten to get in the way of Labor Day travel plans and drench anyone unlucky enough to get caught outside for that one half-hour, before turning into a clear, perfect weekend.
Even if a hurricane ever does live up to the hype, things will likely never be quite as bad as 1938 again. Between 1960 and 1966 the city built the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, which spans the Providence River with three large gates. When a hurricane (including Earl last week) threatens, they can close these gates and keep out any storm surges that might otherwise submerge the low-lying city under several feet of water
So if you found yourself getting worked up about Earl, rest assured. Even if a real hurricane ever does hit Providence, it’ll never be quite like in these pictures. And if after all the build-up, you felt like Hurricane Earl (all twenty minutes of it) was a letdown, just take a trip down to the Biltmore. They have a plaque marking the high water level of the ’38 hurricane in their lobby. Stand under it and imagine yourself underwater.
Marguerite Preston B’11 got caught in the downpour.