Notes on collections at the RIHS
September 21 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hurricane of 1938 and in writing this entry, I could think of no one object in our collection like Gov. Garrahy’s shirt to represent the 38 Hurricane. What we do have are photographs, books, newspaper accounts and oral histories that tell the dramatic story of September 21 and the following days of recovery.
Today, via the news and social media, we are presented with not only the devastating outcomes of natural disaster but also the human stories of courage, resilience and survival. We are constantly told of the increased risks related to global warming and its domino effect on weather systems and patterns. In turn, we are much more well educated today about disaster preparedness and response. For example, the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (EMA) has an abundance of resources for business and individuals to plan, respond and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. In today’s Twitterverse, one can sign up for alerts through the RI EMA as well as local authorities like the Providence Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).
In 1938 we relied on instruments like barometric pressure devices and the radio to inform us about weather conditions.Today’s weather reporting systems have advanced incredibly, think pinpoint Doppler Radar. Now one can get up to the minute local weather reports on their phones, be they smart or otherwise, that give fair warning about potential catastrophes.
The Hurricane of 1938 swept through New England essentially without warning and left in its a wake decimated shorelines, death and injury to many, flooding and general chaos. But within this chaos were people struggling to survive and survive they did.
A wonderful and riveting recollection of what happened in one particular Rhode Island community on Sept. 21 is captured in “Watch Hill in the hurricane of September 21st, 1938 : including the survivors’ stories of the Fort Road tragedy.”[a]
To give a sense of the calm before the storm let us turn to Mrs. John McKesson Camp who “was hostess at luncheon on the rocks at Weekapaug and her guests gathered about one o’clock and only noticed that the sea looked restless and spoke of a strange yellow light over it.”
One hour later, “Bob Loomis, last summer’s popular Fort Road officer was out in the open all through the storm and saw all that one could see through the flying spray and rain. […] Loomis noticed an unusual pressure in his ears.” The fire station suffered flooding of 6 feet 4 inches which in turn swept the fire engines out onto the road.
In a most gripping account, Mrs. Geoffry Jones in writing to her brother recounts:
“…Suddenly the house began to collapse beneath us. We ran with lightning speed and as a unit down the hall and up the stairs to the third floor and just in time for the second floor had gone down like an elevator only with a sideways motion. […]
The huge waves crashed over us and we had to cling for dear life. […] As we were the last house to go, there was nothing around us but our own wreckage and by the size of the waves that broke over us we thought we were headed for mid-ocean. […] Geoffrey said he saw sharks following us. The wall of the cook’s room acted as a sail for us and helped speed us along. […] We glanced over the bay at the place we had loved so much, the place we had often called “Heaven on Earth”. [b.]
Written by James DaMico, Librarian
a. Watch Hill in the hurricane of September 21st, 1938 : including the survivors’ stories of the Fort Road tragedy.http://rihs.minisisinc.com/rihs/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/RIHS_M2L/LINK/SISN+10281?SESSIONSEARCH