The Sky Turned Green...
a Cautionary Tale
on the 70th anniversary of the No-Name Hurricane* of 1938
by Donna Montalbano
*Hurricane: derived from "Hurican", the Carib god of evil.
Wednesday, September 21st, 1938, Rhode Island: The day dawned clear and bright. It had
been a beastly summer; oppressively humid, incessantly raining. But this morning was fine; and the sea
was as warm as bathwater. It was as if summer had bestowed a guilty, farewell kiss on Rhody's cheek:
Hey, sorry I wasn't more fun; see you next year!
Children left for school, fisherman set out for sea and housewives could finally, after days of
rain, hang out their wash and depend on the sunshine to dry it in no time flat. At Watch Hill, on the barrier
island of Napatree and along the four mile strand at Misquamicut, summer colonists were glad
they'd lingered at their seashore bungalows.
Oh, there were signs and portents that this would be no ordinary day. No one divined them in
time. Later, people wondered where the seagulls had gone that morning. Why weren't the birds
singing? The air was as motionless as a held breath. Skeins of high cirrus clouds threaded the sky. The
ocean swells were grand, but the sea seemed high and the long rollers were forming so far out.
In Providence, the weather was sunny and a mild 75 degrees. Vinnie Piscitelli, 17 years old, was
working at Paramount Sales on North Main Street. At some point during the morning, he opened the
back door of the shop to speak to the trash collector and the wind slammed it shut so hard that it
shattered the glass panes. Golly, that was strange!
They day would get a lot stranger. By afternoon, along the southern coast of Rhode Island, the
sky took on a greenish-yellowish cast. Mustardy, some called it; jaundiced or ochre. An artist of the day
"The sky changed to a rich greenish yellow. The green appeared murky, and the yellow
transparent. All seemed glazed over with a very light and delicate golden red."
The air exhaled; sodden with humidity. The wind grew aggressive. A haunted, hollow roar
seemed to emanate from everywhere and nowhere.
Nobody realized that a leviathan Category 5 hurricane was bearing down on Rhode Island;
no, not bearing down: it was already here. Its acceleration had been astonishing, moving 50, 60, 70
miles an hour, passing seven states in seven hours, the fastest known forward speed of a hurricane ever
recorded. Dubbed the Long Island Express, it smashed into Long Island at 3:30 pm; with wind gusting at
180 mph and storm tides of 14 to 18 feet. The force of the storm surge was so cataclysmic that
seismographs at Fordham University in New York registered the impact as an earthquake. And it was
such an enormous storm, 500 miles across with a massive 50-mile-wide eye, that no sooner had
it destroyed the Long Island and Connecticut coasts; then it was pounding at Rhode Island’s door.
By 2:30 PM much of South County has lost telephone and electricity. The hurricane came ashore
as a Category 3, some say 4, which by definition means winds from 131-155 mph and storm surges
generally 13-18 feet above normal. It smashed into Westerly at the worst of the worst possible
time: astronomical high tide made higher by the autumnal equinox and the pull of the new moon. Westerly
would suffer the greatest loss of life in the state.
Witnesses at the height of the fury saw what they thought was a 40 foot high fog bank rolling in
from the sea. But it wasn't fog, it was a solid wall of water...
There was no time to run. No place to hide. The tidal wave chased families up staircases from
first stories to attics until there was nowhere to go but the roofs. There they clung on to chimneys and
each other, until the winds tore the roofs off and parents and children were plunged into the boiling
sea. Some were lucky and able to ride the roofs, or catch hold of flotsam and jetsam and be carried
miraculously inland, across ponds and salt marshes and bays to the relative safety of the mainland. But
often as not the wind flung them out to sea, never to be seen alive again.
Ninety-nine percent of shoreline from Quonochontaug to Charlestown was destroyed. On
Napatree Island, 44 summer homes and the yacht club building were swept away. The next day, this two
mile spit of land was completely barren, not a stick or brick remaining of human habitation.
At Misquamicut Beach: 500 beach homes gone. Charlestown, Charlestown Beach and
Charlestown Pond lost nearly 300 homes. At Narragansett Pier, the giant rocks of the seawall were
pounded into gravel, Sherry's Pavilion, a Pier landmark, was thrown across the highway like a toy; and
the famous Dunes Club was in ruins. Many of the grand old bathing pavilions along the shore were
unsalvageable and, unlike the Dunes Club, never rebuilt.
Block Island lost 36 of its 56 fishing boats.
Newport and Warren Counties were incommunicado. Bailey's Beach, Newport Beach and Island
Park in Newport County were obliterated. The hurricane chopped up Jamestown into four parts.
But it wasn't over yet. Where do tens of thousands of tons of furious roiling seawater go after it's
obliterated low lying ocean-facing settlements and fragile barrier islands? In Rhode Island, where else but
into the open arms and inviting mouth of Narragansett Bay; portal to the peaceful towns circling its
shores, Barrington, Warwick and East Greenwich; and the backdoor route straight into the heart
That’s what happened.
In Warwick, 700 permanent homes and hundreds of summer bungalows were destroyed.
Arguably, the most tragic event of the '38 hurricane occurred at Mackerel Cove on Conanicut
Island in the middle of the bay. A school bus full of children was forced to stop in the middle of a narrow
causeway. The bus driver, believing it the safest course of action, was attempting to get the children out
of the bus when three giant waves hit; seven children, four of them from the same family, were swept to
"When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always
1938 was a miserable year for many reasons, sandwiched as it was between the lingering Great
Depression and the looming prospect of another World War. Rhode Island was mired in poverty
and unemployment; many families subsisting on less than $25 a week.
To the average Rhode Islander, Providence was the Emerald City. Yet accessible to everyone.
The trolley cost a nickel. If you couldn't shop, well, you could window shop, at Diamond's, Cherry & Webb,
The Boston Store, Gladdings, Kay Jewelers, Liggetts and J.R. Foster. Prince or pauper, you could roam
the glittering Arcade on Westminster Street, the first indoor shopping mall in America. There were five
major theaters: the Albee on Westminster, the Strand and Majestic on Washington. On Union was Fay's,
the vaudeville house, and at Weybosset and Richmond was the opulent Loew's State Theater: a fantasy
palace of plush carpet, velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers.
As early as 3 PM the wind began to blow in Providence. Glass exploded out of store windows.
One witness who took refuge in a cafeteria between Westminster and what is now Kennedy Plaza,
remembers a woman being blown through the window into the restaurant.
The columned Greek Revival Shopping Arcade with entrances on both Westminster and
Weybosset, had become a wind tunnel. Departing shoppers ran into a wall of wind as unyielding as
cement. Some people found themselves crammed into the tiny compartments of revolving doors and then
like something out a Marx brothers movie, spun round and round and round. The wind ripped away a
chunk of the roof of the Public Library, and the structure atop the Turks Head Building. It tore off the metal
roof of Union Station.
At about 5 PM, driven by 120 plus mph winds, came the flood.
The top of Narragansett Bay funnels into the Providence River. On September 21st, 1938,
the narrowed neck of the bay piled the storm surge to unimaginable heights and blasted it into the river
where, within minutes, it inundated the mile square business district and three miles of
industrial waterfront. The surge of wind and water ripped up wharves, and catapulted two coal barges
across Water Street. A tug was lifted up and dropped down on the cribwork of the India Point Bridge, and
huge sections of dock washed onto Dorrance Street, a quarter of a mile away. The flood rampaged
through the streets and alleys, rising three feet every ten minutes; swallowing people, cars, trucks,
trolleys, newsstands and street signs.
The noise alone was enough to drive a sane person mad: a hellish cacophony of human
screams, howling wind, breaking glass, short-circuited alarms, trolley bells and the incessant blaring of
A wedding was scheduled that day at the Narragansett Hotel in downtown Providence. The
nuptial banquet was ready and waiting, but the groom got stranded at Union Station. Various orphans of
the storm took refuge in the hotel and gobbled up all the food and drained all the champagne. But it all
came out all right: Joe and Lorraine Fogel were married in a midnight candlelit service by a Providence
judge. Then they waded over to the Biltmore for their wedding night; escorted by National
Guardsmen with bayonets. Because by then, the looters had come.
Rhode Island writer David de Jong described the surreal sight:
"They came neck-deep or swimming; holding flashlights dry above them, rising out of the water
and disappearing through the demolished store windows. At first, there were few. Then there were hordes
assisting each other. They were brazen and insatiable. They took everything. When a few policemen
came past in a rowboat, they didn't stop their looting. They knew they outnumbered the police. They
seemed organized, almost regimented, as if they'd daily drilled and prepared for this event..."
Hundreds of moviegoers were stranded in the theaters, swimming up to the balconies as the
water rushed in. The H.L. Wood Boat Company launched rowboats from their display windows to
rescue those clinging on to streetlamps or swimming for their lives. Dozens found refuge on the upper
steps of City Hall. Workers were stuck, high but dry, on the second and third floors of office
buildings. Some threw ropes out of windows to pull people out of the floodwaters and up to safety.
Many watched helplessly as a beautiful, half naked woman was propelled down the street by the storm
surge. Her expression seemed oddly impassive considering her predicament. "Look at the blonde!" a
man shouted as the lady smashed into the side of a building. It turned out "the blonde" was a store
Over at Paramount Sales on North Main, young Vinnie Piscitelli watched as the wind toppled a
mighty oak up on Benefit Street, and carried away the carved wooden trellis surrounding the steeple of
St. John's Church. Driving home soon after, Vinnie passed a young woman with a baby walking in the
opposite direction, struggling against the stinging wind. "I can't let her walk home in this storm,” he
decided, and turned his car around. He drove her to her destination, then turned around again and
continued on his way.
At approximately 5:15, the lights went out all across Providence. The lack of power created an
urgent problem for the city's two major newspapers, the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin. The
public needed to know where to go for food and shelter and emergency care. And a list of the missing
and dead needed to be published. The papers sent staff members to the Woonsocket Call and the
Boston Post, who published emergency editions of the papers until October 3 .
These random acts of kindness and heroism, the many miracles great and small, saved scores of
lives that day. Yet loss of life in Rhode Island was heavy, greater than any other state impacted by the
hurricane. Estimates of the dead range from 262 to over 400. The higher figure is according to R.A.
Scotti, author of Sudden Sea, The Great Hurricane of 1938. She maintains that many bodies were
floating in the sea and could only be spotted by plane. In some cases their waterlogged boots were
holding the drowned upright.
In Providence water poured into the bank vaults that protected the stocks and bonds of the
wealthy. Later, moneyed East Siders ventured down from College Hill to check the contents of their safe
deposit boxes and hang their stock certificates out to dry. Bundles of cash were waterlogged and women
bank tellers were put to work ironing the greenbacks dry. One irreplaceable document was
sadly unsalvageable: the original handwritten parchment charter for Brown University penned in 1765.
In a shocking break with tradition, the venerable all-male Hope Club opened its doors to women
that day, although some members grumbled that emergency or no, no good would come from admitting
Most of the East Side was spared the flood but not the fury of the winds. Trees were pulled out of
the earth so violently their ancient roots were exposed. Streets were so choked with debris that they were
By 7:30 PM, the wind died down, the waters receded, and martial law was imposed
The hurricane abandoned Rhode Island, but continued its rampage north; through Swansea,
Woods Hole, brushing Boston. It clocked in at the Blue Hill Observatory with an unbelievable wind speed
of 186 mph before the equipment blew apart. It veered west and trampled Worcester, Springfield and the
Berkshires; it destroyed Vermont’s maple woods and scaled the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It
raised the water level of Lake Champlain by two feet. Finally, the storm reached Quebec, near Montreal,
its winds still at gale force. It had flown from the Carolinas to Canada in a single day.
New England went silent and dark, pushed by the tempest back to the age of candlelight and fire;
cut off from the outside world. Landmarks and roads had disappeared. Towns were graveyards. Homes
that had sheltered generations had been swept away. Hundreds of boats were destroyed, along with the
livelihoods of fisher and lobstermen. The rich trove of Rhode Island white pine was uprooted, and with it
went the state's lumber industry. Maps were useless; the coastlines forever altered.
Old Rhody was no more.
A reporter somberly declared that the hurricane had taken more even life and riches.
''The greens and commons of New England will never be the same,'' his article said. ''Picture
postcard mementos of the oldest part of the United States are gone with the wind and flood. A great part
of the most picturesque America, as old as the Pilgrims, has gone beyond recall or replacement.''
No homes were ever rebuilt on Napatree Island. But in other coastal communities in Rhode
Island, hundreds more homes stand today than did in 1938, directly in harm's way.
It's Not Like It Never Happened Before...
A plaque affixed to the wall of the historic Old Market House in Market Square in downtown
Providence was inscribed:
The wind driven waters around
the walls of this building
rose to the level of this line:
Eleven Feet Nine and One Fourth Inches
Above Mean High Water
This wasn't the high watermark for the Hurricane of '38, however, but for the Great Gale of September 23,
The hurricanes were eerily similar; both born off the Cape Verde Islands, making first
landfall within ten miles of each other. Each set records for wind speed and storm surges. During the
1815 hurricane the winds were estimated at 135 mph and higher. 500 houses and 35 ships were
destroyed and Providence flooded, again.
Nearly two hundred years earlier, another monstrous storm had hit New England: the Great
Colonial Hurricane of 1635. It was a deadly Category 4 hurricane with winds in excess of 140 mph. In
Narragansett Bay the tide was 14 feet above normal tide and drowned Native people and colonists alike.
To the Pilgrims, who remembered the peaceful shores of England, it was Apocalyptic.
Anatomy of the 1938 New England Hurricane
In the Northern Hemisphere, the circular motion of a tropical storm is counter clockwise. The left
hand side of the circle is mostly rain. The right hand side is death and destruction on a grand scale:
the "dangerous semi-circle." In a typical Atlantic hurricane scenario, the mid Atlantic coastal states get a
left-hand slap of rain and wind. But in the north, where Long Island and New England jut out into the sea,
the terrible right shoulder of the storm smashes the coastlines, then surges into inland waterways to
devastate the heartlands.
The hurricanes that strike the North Atlantic states originate off the west coast of Africa, near the
Cape Verde Islands. Pay close attention to any named hurricane that passes to the north of Puerto Rico
and the east of the Bahamas. In 1938 the Weather Bureau had no satellites, radar or offshore buoys. It
relied on reports from ships at sea but unfortunately, the track of this storm was not near any
shipping lanes. It was known that at 8:30 AM on September 18th, the hurricane of '38 was due north of
Puerto Rico and due east of the Bahama Islands. Dead ahead lay endless open miles of warm ocean and
humid air for the storm to feed upon.
Even so, hurricanes on this path usually turn eastward and dissipate at sea, because of the
westward flow of air masses off the continent and the northward pull of the pole.
But not this time.
This time, there was a high pressure area over the continent, and another high pressure area in
the Atlantic to the west of the storm. The hurricane galloped up a low pressure valley in between like a
cowboy in a canyon. It compacted and intensified in the low pressure trough. Its circular winds increased
and its forward momentum accelerated to unheard-of speeds. First it hit Long Island. Then it set its sights
on New England.
Is There a Lesson in Here Somewhere?
The hurricane of 1938 set a new storm surge record in the city of Providence: 14 feet above
mean water tide, and in some places, as high as 17 feet.
At some point between 1635 and 1960, somebody got sick and tired of hurricane storm
surges regularly drowning Rhode Island's capital city. After Hurricane Carol flooded Providence yet again,
the idea was floated to build a hurricane barrier between Narragansett Bay and the Providence River.
The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier took five years to build and cost $16 million in 1960's
dollars. The engineers who designed it, the contractors who built it, were all local. The Hurricane Barrier
has five 4500 H.P. pumps with instantaneous starting power. These pumps are among the largest in the
world, and each pump is 54.7 feet high and 20 feet in diameter. Together they have a capacity of
3,150,000 gallons per minute. The barrier protects a 280 acre area against any weather conditions which
would cause flooding in the Downtown area, and was designed to protect against storm surges 20 feet
above sea level. When its river and road gates are closed it forms a half mile, 25 foot high barrier
from Allens Avenue to India Point Park. Without the Barrier, Providence would have been under at least
two feet of water in September, 1985 when hurricane 'Gloria' struck this area.
"Get Hurricane Ready Rhode Island!"
Gov. Carcieri recently introduced a public service campaign to encourage hurricane readiness.
For the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, hurricane preparedness has been a number one
priority especially since the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Steve Kass, public information officer of RIEMA,
says the agency plans to put high water mark signs around the state, to remind Rhode Islanders of how
catastrophically high flood waters did (and may again) rise during a major hurricane. RIEMA is also
launching a media blitz focusing on hurricane awareness and preparedness. On September 13th, in
cooperation with other state and federal agencies, a full scale internal hurricane exercise is planned.
But what if a hurricane tears up the Atlantic at speeds as fast or even faster than the storm
of 1938? There might be time to prepare; but would there be time to get the hell out of Dodge?
That question keeps David Vallee awake at night: a sudden, rapid and unpredictable
acceleration of a hurricane and/or a worse angle of approach than the Hurricane of '38.
Vallee is Hydrologist in Charge for the Northeast River Forecast Center for the National Weather Service
in Taunton. To him, New England hurricanes are a law unto themselves; hybrids; half tropical, half jet
stream propelled, and influenced by polar air flows.
Experts agree that hurricane activity in the North Atlantic has picked up. Vallee maintains he has
tremendous confidence that the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, unlike the levees of New Orleans, will do its
job. But he warns that here in New England "we still have a very inexperienced population that has not
had to deal with the impact of a major hurricane." Forecasting has never been more accurate thanks to
satellites and sophisticated software. But predicting the path of a hurricane and its landfall still comes
down to the last 24 hours.
And looking back on the Hurricane of '38: what a difference a day makes...