On the morning of Wednesday, September 21, 1938, coastal residents of Long Island and New England were enjoying lingering end-of-season warmth and thinking of storing their beach chairs and umbrellas. The skies were clear and the winds calm. The Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts, was open for another day of agricultural exhibits, midway games, and shows, and four huge Ferris wheels were lined up side by side among the rides luring children and adults alike. The New York Times looked at the state of weather forecasting and pronounced it good. An editorial lauded the role of “an admirably organized meteorological service” in informing the world about the approach of hurricanes.
But to the south, the ships and scientific stations that comprised the warning network the Times referred to were being taken by surprise. A hurricane in the South Atlantic, rather than drifting out to sea, had swung on a path that paralleled the coast. Squeezed between two high-pressure systems, it was barreling north at sixty miles an hour and gathering strength from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The hurricane passed Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at seven in the morning. By noon it reached New Jersey.
The blow that struck New Jersey was a glancing one, wrecking the boardwalk at Manasquan, fatally weakening the bridge between Atlantic City and Brigantine, and ruining much of the unharvested tomato and apple crops. New York City too was inconvenienced more than harmed. Sixty-five-mile-an-hour winds tore through Manhattan’s streets, ripping down awnings and shop signs and forcing pedestrians to clutch their hats. Heavy rains flooded cellars and roadways, blocking traffic and disrupting subway and rail service. One man drowned when he tried to swim from a swamped car near the Queens waterfront at Whitestone Landing and two more were lost at Throgs Neck in the Bronx after rescuing residents from the rising waters of Long Island Sound. The force of the wind against the high sides of the arriving French passenger liner Ile de France, 791 feet long, was so great that it took twelve tugboats instead of the usual six to wrestle the ship into its berth at a Hudson River pier. Heaving seas plunged the rail of one of the Staten Island ferries under a dock protrusion, where the vessel locked; it was halfway to capsizing with 200 passengers aboard before tugs could pull it free.
Farther east, conditions were far worse. At one-thirty in the afternoon, a barometer reading taken on the exposed south shore of Long Island showed 29.78 inches of air pressure. By three o’clock, the barometric pressure was 27.43 inches, a stunningly steep drop that prefigured a drastic change. The wind increased steadily from forty miles an hour to ninety. Blowing sand burned the skin raw.
As the hours passed, the wind kept rising, and circled so that it came directly off the ocean. Waves that had been glancing along the shoreline now came from straight offshore. In the late afternoon, people with a view of the beach looked out to sea and saw what they thought was a low fog bank headed toward the shore. When they realized it was not fog but a wall of water bearing down on them, for most it was too late to run. The huge wave crashed across the fragile barrier islands that protected the South Shore, burrowed channels through the dunes, and ripped through the residential areas behind them, sweeping homes off their foundations and carrying the nail-spiked wreckage inland to smash more houses as it went. Residents scrambled to their attics only to have their houses crumble under them. Others swam for their lives. Very few made it. Among the victims was twenty-one-year-old Thomas Fay of Quogue, the captain of the Colgate University golf team; his body washed up at Hampton Bays six days later.
The resort communities of Fire Island were decimated—Ocean Beach lost 300 homes, Fair Harbor and Saltaire at least 100 each. At East Hampton, a Long Island Rail Road train tumbled off the tracks where the surge had undercut the roadbed. On Long Island Sound, hundreds of yachts lost their moorings and were wrecked along the North Shore of the island. The manager at Greenport’s Metro Theater evacuated the house minutes before the wind blew the building down. At Sag Harbor, the 125-foot steeple of the Old Whalers’ Church was ripped from the roof and fell into the churchyard.
The hurricane reached Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts with no warning whatsoever. Its speed, together with the downed telephone and telegraph wires that lined its destructive path, wiped out communications. At first people thought they were experiencing one of those blows that seemed to arrive every year around the autumnal equinox. But as the wind increased and drove rain past tightly sealed doors and windows, the realization dawned that New England was in for something worse.
Coastal residents at Charlestown-by-the-Sea, Rhode Island, between Newport and Stonington, Connecticut, said the wave coming off the ocean was sixty or seventy feet high. This was surely an exaggeration, but not by much. At Watch Hill, a few miles to the west, the surge arrived in disastrous conjunction with the astronomical high tide. It crashed across the Napatree Point peninsula, swept away every one of the forty-four summer cottages on the narrow, curving strip of sand, broke the local yacht club in two and carried the debris across Little Narragansett Bay to the shoreline of Connecticut. E. L. Reynolds, the assistant fire chief, said, “Some of the houses just blew up like feathers.”
The surge roared past Newport and up Narragansett Bay. At the island town of Jamestown, at the entrance to the bay, seven children drowned when the wave swept their school bus off a causeway and into deep water. In Providence, workers left their offices to head for home and found eight feet of water in the streets and a paralyzed transportation system. By then the water was rising so quickly they had to scramble up fire escapes to save their lives. At the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Building, a plaque marking the high-water mark in an 1815 storm was submerged under three feet of water. At the busy waterfront, the wave tore workboats from their moorings and slammed them into bridges, docks, port offices, and warehouses.
In the ports and coastal resorts and islands of Connecticut and Massachusetts, the big wave decimated workboats, fishing fleets, and yachts, smashed dwellings large and small, and took the lives of the rich and poor alike. Actor James Cagney lost only a few trees at his Martha’s Vineyard home but reported that the fishing fleet at Menemsha had been destroyed. The flood short-circuited electric wires at New London, Connecticut, an hour after the surge passed, and fire broke out in a four-block section of the downtown business area. Firemen fought the blaze in water up to their necks, directing their hoses toward the flames only to have the wind blow the hose water back into their faces until a wind shift finally let them gain control.
At the Eastern States Exposition, Connecticut governor Wilbur L. Cross had laid the cornerstone of his state’s building along the Avenue of States—the fairground’s main drag with replicas of each New England statehouse—just the day before. The midway offered the usual collection of carny shows and come-ons; the four huge Ferris wheels invited riders to view from high above the panorama that included a racetrack where Jimmy Roach’s Hell Drivers skidded and spun through a repertoire of death-defying high-speed auto tricks. Exhibitor S. G. Hyatt, the H. D. Hudson farm equipment company’s New England representative, was set up in a large tent showing off the company’s poultry and dairy barn equipment, crop sprayers, garden tools, and ventilators. The display featured the latest in cow-watering devices and poultry incubators.
As the wind rose, the operator of the Ferris wheels emptied the rides and removed the seats as a precaution. Without them, he said, the wind would simply blow through the open frames of the wheels. This prediction was as accurate as the forecasts that failed to anticipate the storm. Fairgoers watched as the wheels began to sway and tip, until the first toppled onto the second and they all fell like dominos into a pile of twisted steel. At the H. D. Hudson tent, a dozen baby chicks peeped on a bed of straw under a warming lightbulb in their brooder until the winds collapsed the tent into a mound of sopping canvas. Hyatt crawled under the pile, retrieved the chicks, and took them home in a cardboard box. Afterward, he would say he saved twelve lives. He was one of the few who were able to speak easily about the storm.
The water from the storm surge receded almost as quickly as it had come. But along the Connecticut River, the crisis was just beginning. The rain falling on already saturated earth loosened the roots of trees, which fell by the thousands in the wind. And as the river rose during the night, the first news of the disaster, spread by teams of young ham radio operators, began to reach the outside world.
President Roosevelt was still in bed at six-thirty on the morning of Thursday, September 22, when his press secretary, Marvin H. McIntyre, told him of the extent of the devastation. By nine o’clock, the WPA, along with the Coast Guard, the army and navy, the CCC, and the Red Cross, had field agents headed to Long Island and New England. Hopkins, in California, telephoned to say he was cutting his trip short and would take the first available plane headed east. Meanwhile, his deputy, Aubrey Williams, instructed Ray Branion, now the WPA’s regional administrator for New England after his transfer from California, to muster every available worker for flood rescue in Hartford and elsewhere on the Connecticut River, and for body searches along the coast. Williams also ordered the WPA’s acting chief of engineers, Major B. M. Harloe, to fly over the hurricane zone to map out a rehabilitation plan. Before the day was out, he was briefing the president on the WPA’s plans for debris removal and the restoration of roads, bridges, and public health facilities.
As the storm clouds moved north, leaving their trail of destruction, among the structures that stood tall and strong amid the ruins were some of the works of the WPA. WPA-built seawalls along coastal beaches had withstood the brutal storm surge. A bathing pavilion at Scarborough State Beach at Narragansett, Rhode Island, built by the WPA the year before, stood in solitary relief on a beach where everything around it had been reduced to rubble. Flood control dams on the Connecticut and Nashua rivers, installed by WPA crews after the floods of 1936, were yet to be tested.
The hurricane winds and rain disappeared as quickly as they came. Hartford residents awoke on Thursday morning to a soft autumn day with hazy sun and puffy clouds. Hartford itself, west of the Connecticut River, was disheveled, with fallen trees and wind damage, but dry. But across the river in East Hartford, the river had overflowed and inundated businesses and rail yards. And it was still rising, threatening the west bank residences and the central business district, including the Colt arms factory and offices two blocks from the river. Factory workers frantically moved machines and supplies in threatened areas to higher ground and boat patrols were mustered to evacuate residents. Forecasters revised their predictions of high water ever upward. By the afternoon, WPA workers mobilized from throughout the region, along with CCC campers, world war veterans, college students, and other volunteers, descended on the southeast section of the city in the attempt to save homes and protect the semi-industrial area, which had been severely damaged in the flooding two years earlier.
By Thursday night WPA and other laborers were filling sandbags and loading them into trucks. More WPA men stacked the bags on dikes along the river and at the ends of streets that stopped at the river’s edge. From where they worked along the sandbag barriers, the men could look out toward the river and see the Bartlett-Brainard Construction Company building with water halfway up its windows. And the water continued to rise at a rate of almost two inches an hour.
The WPA’s local representative, Thomas F. Foley, directed the operation while the state administrator, Vincent J. Sullivan, was fighting his way over debris-blocked and flooded roads from New Haven to Hartford. Working without sleep out of the Colt offices, Foley paused between urgent phone conversations to hobble outside on a sprained right ankle to monitor weak spots in the dike and keep track of the flood’s rise. In charge of a thousand men, he worked them into Friday night, when the water finally peaked within inches of the tops of the last sandbags and began to slowly fall. When Sullivan arrived at last, he set up refugee centers in the schools, and within them stocked playrooms with toys and games for children left homeless by the storm. He organized a radio appeal for more toys, and bands from the Federal Music Project played popular music for children and their parents at the refugee centers.
East Hampton, Connecticut, well away from the river, also had to cope with rising waters. Lake Pocotopaug had spilled over a company dam and filled the local streets; a breach of the dam would wipe out the town. For forty-eight hours, WPA workers, along with CCC men and volunteers, fought non-stop to save the dam. They won the fight, but the waters receded so slowly that on Saturday, four days after the hurricane, a local man was still able to catch a seventeen-and-a-half-pound carp on Main Street. More WPA men worked in the town of Ware, Massachusetts, making emergency repairs on three vital bridges over the Ware River. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, in Springfield, Holyoke, Amherst, Southbridge, and Fitchburg, the WPA joined workers from the CCC and the military to stack sandbags against flooding, evacuate residents from flooded neighborhoods, carry invalids from hospitals to higher ground, repair bridges and clear them of debris, and restore order during states of emergency when looting broke out in some of the devastated areas. In Manchester, New Hampshire, the WPA labored to raise walls of sandbags against the Merrimack and Piscataquog Rivers.
Meanwhile, the WPA-built flood control dams on the Connecticut and Nashua withstood the worst the downrushing waters had to offer until the crests finally receded and the rivers settled back toward their normal levels.
WPA workers marshaled to the coast of Rhode Island found their work grim. There, thousands of men from the WPA and CCC, joined by volunteers, searched low-lying areas for bodies. Windblown and waterborne debris hampered their work, and in some places sand was several feet deeper than it had been before the hurricane. More WPA workers waited alongside bulldozers and tractors that were disassembling the wreckage of houses and boats where bodies might lie hidden.
WPA workers also joined the search for the dead at New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the seaside community of Crescent Beach had been swept by a wall of water that destroyed a mile-long stretch of waterfront and left only five houses standing.
By Friday morning, there were 100,000 WPA workers in the field on Long Island and throughout New England. Even as search-and-rescue efforts were giving way to cleanup, one crew in Rhode Island found a man alive buried under eight feet of wreckage where the storm had passed forty hours earlier. Hopkins, back from the West Coast, summoned the governors of the devastated states to a meeting in Boston to review their needs for help. Throughout the region, WPA sewing rooms put aside their other work to produce clothing for flood victims. WPA nurses and nutritionists staffed refugee centers at schools and infirmaries, and kindergarten teachers set up children’s playrooms.
On Sunday, Hopkins toured the area by air and car from Providence. There were 260 dead in Rhode Island with the body count still rising, 10,000 homes had been destroyed or damaged, and losses were estimated at $100 million. Hopkins saw WPA workers digging through the ruins, talked to eyewitnesses of the hurricane, and returned from his day-long tour with a terse assessment. “From what I’ve seen today, I would say the situation is very bad,” he said. He estimated that the WPA could spend $25 million rebuilding the region “without wasting a penny,” and added, “We will do whatever needs to be done.”
The eventual death toll from the New England hurricane reached 682, with 1,700 injured. Almost 9,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed and another 15,000 damaged. Some 2,600 boats, from working and fishing boats to yachts, were lost and another 3,300 damaged. And then there was the decimated landscape, with countless trees that had been blown down or otherwise uprooted now being reduced to sawdust by the workers of the WPA in their fast-moving cleanup. But so swift and efficient was that recovery work that by late November, the storm debris had largely disappeared and much of New England was looking forward to a normal winter. Red Cross chairman Norman H. Davis credited the WPA among the agencies contributing to “one of the most amazing disaster recoveries this organization has ever known.”