Remembering the Hurricane of 1938

hurricane of 1938
Liz Kuchta

NOTE: This article was first published in 2013

On September 21, 1938 one of the most violent storms to impact New England since colonial times raced ashore near New Haven and spread a deadly combination of wind, rain and storm surge from Long Island to Quebec.

This was the only category 3 hurricane to strike Connecticut in recorded history. Sustained wind speeds reached 115 mph in parts of New London County, and wind gusts over 100 mph were common across the rest of the state. Five-to-ten inches of rain sent rivers flooding over their banks and weakened the roots of trees that were uprooted by the millions across New England.

Wilbur Beckwith was in 4th grade in Niantic when the infamous hurricane of '38 struck without warning. The wind was blowing open the windows in his classroom and his teacher ordered the students to try to keep the windows closed to prevent the wind from coming in. Around 3 p.m. Beckwith walked across the street to his home just moments before the worst of the hurricane moved in.

"My sister and I were scared to death," Beckwith recalled. "One of our windows blew out and my father grabbed a hammer and nails and a card table and hammered the card table against the window."

Beckwith and his classmate Norman Peck watched out their bedroom windows to the east when parts of New London burned to the ground. The flames set the night sky aglow for miles across the Connecticut shoreline.

In Guilford, Edith Nettleton was working in the library that day. She only had one customer on September 21st, 1938. Virtually no one knew a storm was coming, including Nettleton, who came to work that morning like she did every weekday on the Guilford Green.

"It was just a normal, rainy, wind blowing day," Nettleton recalled. "The trees were beginning to go down around the green and you could see them going and it was not a pretty sight"

Nettleton, who is now 105 years old, remembers that day well. "When they eye went through some of the trees that were toppled over were blown upright and toppled the other way."

Others in Guilford remember the eye of the storm and some were caught off guard when the back side of the storm roared through.

"I well remember the lull," Martha Rebuzzini who was 13 years old at the time said, "it became quite lovely and then it started to blow again and it's true some of the trees that went one way came back another."

Rebuzzini's family hosted stranded travelers at their home since the Post Road was blocked by the East River and trees that were down seemingly everywhere.

In more rural areas it took weeks to return to normal. In North Guilford, Ruth Nettleton said her family was stranded for 2 weeks because of the trees that had to be removed from roads by axe and handsaw.

"I can just remember the trees going across the road," Nettleton said.

Many of the people who remember the '38 storm today were only kids when it struck. 8-year-old Gordy Whitman was on his brother's magazine route when the storm started raging. After the hurricane neighborhood kids started playing on the jungle of downed trees across the Guilford Green.

"We looked at all the trees on the green and one of us said to the other I bet we can go from Broad Street to Boston and back again on all the trees that have blown down without touching the ground," Whitman said. "So that was the game to see who could do it."

In Niantic Norman Peck remembers being put to work after the storm, "even though I was young I was helping drag brush on Pennsylvania Avenue."

But it was the beach communities on Long Island Sound that bore the brunt of the hurricane's fury. Many beach homes were swept into the ocean and some entire neighborhoods were demolished by the storm. Nearly 100 people died in the state many of whom drowned by a fast-moving record storm surge.

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