The deadly blast of wind and water came as a near total surprise 80 years ago.
“Rain this afternoon and tonight; partly cloudy tomorrow,” was the weather forecast that ran on Sept. 21, 1938.
What weather-watchers didn’t know after reading that forecast was that 80 mph wind gusts, pounding rain and tidal waves were headed for the Northeast, a package of Atlantic fury that became one of destructive hurricanes ever recorded. After it was over, more than 500 people had been killed, 72 in Connecticut alone, as the storm raged from Sept. 21 into Sept. 22.
As the eyes of the nation has been turned to the devastation inflicted on North Carolina and other mid-Atlantic states hit hard by Hurricane Florence last weekend — as well as the lingering misery caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year — the Great Hurricane of 1938 serves as a reminder that extreme weather can strike anywhere with devastating consequences.
The storm brought eight inches of rain to Greenwich during the five days before the hurricane hit. It had no name at the time, but has since been nicknamed the Great New England Hurricane or the Yankee Clipper.
“It’s hard to imagine what the impact would be today,” said Greenwich Harbormaster Ian Macmillan, “I think we’re more sophisticated now, with weather satellites, than in 1938. We can see what’s coming. They had no way of knowing. But we’re still at the mercy of the wind and the waves as they were back then. It’s good to keep that in mind.
The headline of Greenwich Time said it all: “Town Suffers Heavily from Gale and Flood, Worst in its History.” As editors at the paper later noted, “Either the hurricane or the flood would have been bad enough by itself, but coming together they caused a major disaster.”
The town was plunged into darkness at nightfall, traffic on the Post Road came to a complete halt from numerous downed trees and the Byram River rose three feet.
Survivors said storm was unforgettable, even decades later. “I remember the torrential rain. The wind was blowing — man alive that wind was blowing,” recalled Paul P. Palmer, as part of the Greenwich Library Oral History Project. A teenager at the time, and a Boy Scout, Palmer saved a friend who was trapped in the flood waters in Riverside, where the two were out exploring as an adventure. Palmer found a barrel, attached a rope to it, and then guided the jerry-rigged life-saver to his his stricken friend, who was hanging onto a telephone pole, he recalled.
There were numerous close calls, but no deaths in town. Two men were nearly killed by a falling tree at First United Methodist Church of Greenwich — but jumped out of the way at the last second as they heard the tree uprooting.
Two Cos Cob men kayaked down the Post Road. At the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, two newly installed bowling alleys were destroyed by water that flooded the basement. The apple and pear crop at Conyers Farm was nearly wiped out.
About 200 people were forced from their homes, half of whom required emergency assistance. Ropes were used to rescue a family and maid from the second-story of a home in the Shorelands section of Old Greenwich, carried out by police and firefighters. The National Guard was called in to assist law enforcement and prevent looting.
Then there was the tidal wave.
As Pierpont Minor, the town highway superintendent, later described in the pages of Greenwich Time, “It has never happened before in Greenwich.” The tidal wave caused a freak occurrence on the water’s edge.
“A gigantic wall of water hit our shore at 8 o’clock, and from 8 until 10:30, the tide dropped four feet instead of rising,” Minor reported. The Grass Island sewage plant was almost completely submerged, with only a portion of its roof visible.
Residents on dry land took in livestock and put them in garages and storage sheds, saving as many sheep and cattle from the floodwaters as possible.
In Cos Cob, on the banks of the river, a local resident named Stanley Morrell came to the rescue of his neighbor’s chicken flock in a rowboat, using a clothes-line pole to steer. He rowed over to the chicken-house door and saved 30 Rhode Island Red chickens, out of a total of 58 birds.
At the height of the storm, a baby was delivered at Greenwich Hospital without the use of electricity; doctors used candles and flashlights for illumination.
Scores of small boats along the waterfront were submerged or capsized, and at a boat yard on lower Arch Street, large boats were washed inland by about 200 to 300 feet onto yards and lawns.
Probably the most hellish memories of the hurricane belonged to Maud and Frederick Metzger, caretakers of Island Beach. The tidal wave washed over the island, destroyed the pier and submerged most of the dry land. The Metzgers made their way to the highest point on the island as the storm waters rose to knee-height and battered them relentlessly. The two held on for their lives to prevent being washed away into Long Island Sound, but they survived the ordeal, “battered and drenched,” according to the local newspaper account.
One fatality was reported in Stamford, where a 70-year-old watchman at a lumber plant was trying to close a gate, which struck him with deadly force.
The luckiest — and most determined — survivor of the storm was a 4-year-old German shepherd. The dog, which belonged to the family of Alvah Penn on Calves Island, was washed away into the Sound early Thursday and presumed dead. But on Saturday afternoon, Dixie staggered onto the shore at Island Beach. He was soaking wet and exhausted from the ordeal, his tail drooping, but very much alive.