Hurricane of 1938: Homes splintered, neighborhoods gone
EDITOR'S NOTE: The aftermath of the Hurricane of 1938, which struck 75 years ago Saturday, required a long recovery from catastrophic damage, but for some, there was grief as well as property loss. The second in The Day's two-part series, this story is drawn from "The Search" by Paul Johnson Moore as well as recent interviews and reporting from the time.
The news coming out of southern New England on the morning of Sept. 22, 1938, consisted of one thing: silence.
There was no way to place a phone call, no telegraph service, no trains or buses, no word from the police or Coast Guard, and no information from the newspapers.
In Schenectady, N.Y., Paul Moore was aware there had been a big storm the previous day because its western fringe had blown down an apple tree in his yard. His stepmother and sister, Havila, were at the family cottage on Fort Road at Napatree Point in Westerly, where he had left them three days earlier. His father had planned to return there today, close the cottage for the season, and bring the family home to Staten Island.
Moore, 35, an engineer at General Electric, started making long-distance inquiries about how Napatree had fared in the storm. He was mildly unsettled by his inability to get through to anyone. Finally he called the Schenectady papers and asked whether there was any news from the Associated Press. There was. A single, stark line had been transmitted:
Twenty-nine dead in Westerly. Seventy missing.
That was it. No details.
As he repeated the numbers in disbelief, Moore called his father's office in New York and learned that he had left for Rhode Island at 11 a.m. the previous day, before the storm.
With growing fear, he sent a three-word message to his family through the Red Cross: "Are you safe?"
After a day of stomach-turning uncertainty, a telegram arrived at 11:30 p.m.: "Fort Road wiped out. Mother and Havila missing. Fear for the worst. Father."
The next morning, Moore got in his car and started driving.
As the wind picked up Wednesday afternoon, Doris Reynolds' class at Lyme Consolidated School peered out the window as trees swayed and the ground heaved under them. One student asked if they were in a hurricane.
"Don't be silly, Peter," Reynolds told him. Hurricanes don't happen in New England.
But on Thursday morning, people across southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island were emerging from their homes and confronting jaw-dropping evidence to the contrary.
Behind the smoking ruins of Bank Street in New London, a 180-foot ship, the lighthouse tender Tulip, had been hurled up onto the train tracks, all 1,057 tons of it. A derrick lighter had torn loose from its mooring on Pequot Avenue and smashed its way through three wharves, sinking many small boats in the process.
In Groton, more than 100 summer cottages at Bluff Point had been wiped out, and damage was heavy elsewhere along the shore. The region's commercial fishing fleet had been destroyed. Dams had burst in Norwich, and the city was under water.
The remains of summer homes at Ocean Beach in New London lay at crazy angles all along the sand, but here at least, there was opportunity. The congested resort had long been seen as a health, sanitation and moral problem, and within a week, the city was forming a plan to replace it with a public park. Whatever property could not be purchased would be taken by eminent domain.
More than a dozen people were dead in southeastern Connecticut, but the toll in Westerly was a frightful 100. Twelve of them, women from Christ Episcopal Church, had perished together on what was supposed to be a day of fun. On a picnic at Misquamicut with their pastor, they tried to take refuge from the storm in a cottage, and died there.
Only the pastor survived. He had left early to attend a funeral.
Havila Moore refused to be a victim of the birth defect that had left her unable to walk. In fact, she refused not to walk. Shunning a wheelchair or crutches, she moved through life from one piece of furniture to the next, bracing her weight on two muscular arms. Her brother often would carry her to the ocean, where she could float, liberated for a while from gravity.
But Paul Moore knew that even such fierce determination was unequal to the hurricane's rage, and he had to face the possibility that she had not survived.
As other victims, living and dead, turned up one by one, there was no trace in Westerly of Havila. Her brother, who had arrived in town after threading a maze of washed-out roads, beached boats and military checkpoints, found his father and learned immediately that his stepmother had not survived. All hope now rested in finding his sister.
Napatree, which had been lined with beach houses, was now an empty stretch of sand. Nothing was left, not even the foundations. And it was no longer accessible from the mainland, cut off by a new breachway that had made an island of it. Another breachway had separated Sandy Point, which previously had jutted north from Napatree's western end.
With nothing to search there, Moore headed for the Stonington shoreline at the far end of Little Narragansett Bay, where his neighbors, the Geoffrey Moore family, had been carried by the storm. Another neighbor also had been swept across the bay, as a roof, then a mattress, then a sailboat delivered her, battered but alive, to Connecticut.
Stonington was carpeted with walls, roofs, shutters, pieces of boats and smashed wood. One of the first things Moore saw when he arrived in town was the cars of the Bostonian train, toppled off the track and covered with rust.
Gradually, over several days of combing the shore, Moore began to pick up things that had belonged to his neighbors, almost 2 miles away. Letters, a suitcase bearing familiar initials, patio furniture in a recognizable color.
Six days after the storm, he spotted something sitting on a piece of flooring. Instantly familiar, it was made of straw, woven through with decorative strands of red and green.
It was Havila's hat.
The Paster family awoke Sept. 22 in the hay of their dairy barn in Preston and ventured out to see what was left of their old brick house, which they had fled the previous day as it had started to shake in the wind.
The walls were mostly gone, and Gussie Paster looked at the windowless foyer where she and her mother had taken refuge, believing it to be the safest place in the house.
Concrete blocks had rained down from above on the spot where they had been standing.
"We would have been gone if we had just stayed there," the now-91-year-old recalled recently.
The two floors were still intact, as was the staircase connecting them. Family members were able to go upstairs briefly to gather clothes and a few possessions. Gussie's mother retrieved some corn flakes and served breakfast in the barn with milk from the cows.
The family was lucky enough to have a two-room summer cottage half a mile away, so all eight of them packed into it until a new house could be built.
Two weeks later, what was left of their old house caught fire and was destroyed.
Guided by a description of where his neighbors had landed after being swept across the bay, Paul Moore continued to wade through the swampy coastline near Barn Island in Stonington.
Recognizable pieces from his family's cottage began to turn up amid the wreckage: a broken toilet seat, a china cupboard freshly painted a month earlier, a cabinet marked with the heights of his children. He was getting warmer and allowed himself to wonder if his sister could still be alive nearby.
By Oct. 2, a week and a half after the storm, 14 people from Napatree had been confirmed dead. Only Havila remained missing. That day, aided by a small band of volunteers, Moore found more furniture from his cottage.
He met a man and boy who also were searching and asked whether they had come across anything. They had found a dead dog in one place and had seen a swarm of flies in another, but hadn't noticed anything else.
Discouraged after another fruitless day, Moore went out for a drink with a friend when they were tracked down by a phone call. It was his neighbor, Geoffrey Moore.
"I think they've found your sister," he said.
At Flynn's funeral home in Pawcatuck, Paul Moore was given another drink to steel himself for the identification. He looked, and was sick for hours. The body had been found under 5 feet of wreckage in the spot where the flies had swarmed.
Moore returned to Schenectady and chronicled his mournful odyssey in a short book called "The Search" that would not be published for decades. But before he left, he drove to Watch Hill for a last look at Napatree, or what was left of it.
"I started home, but left my heart behind," he wrote. "I didn't look back again."
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