by Charles A. Monagan
Aug 26, 2011
01:43 PM
On Connecticut

The Perfect Storm


As Hurricane Irene has sent people scurrying for groceries stores and gas stations, I headed to our archives, looking for some reports of the past storms that have hit the state.

Of course, the one that comes to mind is Hurricane Gloria, which struck Connecticut on Sept. 27, 1985. Many of us experienced it firsthand, and can recall the devastation afterward, including being some of the nearly 700,000 who went without power for days. Although the storm had weakened by the time it made landfall in Milford, it was still strong enough to uproot trees, wreck homes, destroy property and cause two deaths (from falling tree limbs). Damages were in the hundreds of millions.

As bad as that storm was, the true "storm of the century" for Connecticut was the Hurricane of 1938, which hit on Sept. 21 of that year. Unlike the massive amount of warnings we've received for Irene courtesy of the U.S. Weather Bureau, The Weather Channel and multiple "Storm Team [insert network] with Mega Super Atomic Doppler," the giant storm—packing 100+ mph winds and 25-foot surge on top of a high tide—came upon the state essentially unannounced. Those who had heard any notices on the radio weren't expecting more than a bit of heavy rain.

From an article on the 40th anniversary of the Hurricane of 1938 in the September 1978 issue of Connecticut Magazine, written by current editor Charles Monagan --

The storm wave steamed into New London at about 2:30 p.m., tossing boats onto downtown streets and a 190-foot, 1,057-ton steamer across the eastbound track of the New Haven Railroad. In less than an hour the rest of the state was falling to pieces in the deafening roar. Norwich was quickly isolated and was to go under martial law. A 25-foot wave crashed in at Stonington. In Bridgeport, a ferry named The Park City was due in from Port Jefferson at 3:45, but it had neither been seen nor heard from. It was feared lost along with its twenty passengers and eleven crew members. One of every six trees fell in New Haven, including many of the famous elms.

In Glastonbury, the pressure and the winds cause the First Congregational Church to explode, while in Middletown, at Wesleyan, the stone steeple toppled to the ground. Also in that city, the 2,000 inmates at the state mental hospital were driven into mass hysteria by the storm and they did not settle down until the winds did. Across the state, thousands of trees fell across roads, power lines and railroad tracks. Apple and tobacco crops were ruined; in fact, whole tobacco sheds were lifted up and slammed down by the gale. In Hartford, the clock on the Old State House stopped at 4:10. Out on the streets of that city, "Fences were ripped up and floated in the air like paper," a reporter for the Hartford Courant wrote. "Solid brick walls were torn asunder. Few people ventured on the street to brave the wind. At times their feet were whipped away from under them. Women in the storm cried bitterly, utterly terrified. Rain was driven along in great sheets." And above all was the steady screaming of the wind. In some places it was recorded at over one hundred miles per hour for sustained periods, much higher in gusts.

People died in every which way. They were killed in cars, in homes, on the streets and sidewalks by falling trees, writhing electrical wires, and by the water. Several victims were caught by falling chimneys, others by flying debris and glass. One man was buried in his collapsed garage; another, Patrick Joyce, was hurled into a brick wall in Cheshire; a third died when he was knocked into a deep construction pit by a door that suddenly blew open. A man in Winsted was seen sitting on the roof of his house as it raced down the swollen Mad River. It was the last anyone saw of him. In Branford, a young woman named Ella May Carlson, died at the height of the storm when a tree crushed her car while she was stuck in traffic. As her body was pulled from the wreckage, a book that she had been reading slid off her lap and fell to the ground. It was Gone With the Wind.

When done, the storm was responsible for 680 deaths in addition to seriously injuring 708, leaving 63,000 homeless and causing some $400 million in property damage, equal to $6.4 billion today.

Let's hope that after Sunday, that storm still keeps all those records. Stay safe!

The Perfect Storm

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