Before Irene, the Hurricane of ’38

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 31, 2011

DEVASTATION Island Park on September 22, 1938.

The winds kicked up near the West African coast and shot across the Atlantic Ocean. Two weeks later, they barreled past Puerto Rico and turned north.

But when the storm spared Florida and drifted east of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, it was largely written off.

It was September of 1938. There was no radar. And hurricanes never landed in New England, anyway.

The morning of September 21, Anne and Catherine Moore were at home with their parents on Napatree Point, Rhode Island, a sandy spit stretching out from Watch Hill.

It was a community of about 150, serviced by a single road. There was swimming on the bay side. On the ocean side, too. And the woolen swimsuits, Anne recalls in the American Experience documentary Hurricane of '38, were scratchy.

"It really hurt," she says, with a chuckle. "It just did."

In downtown Providence, those lucky enough to hold a job amid the Depression trundled to and from work. The less fortunate window shopped.

The old Metropolitan Theatre was offering up Spencer Tracy that day, and Doris Layden and some girlfriends planned to see him after work. By 2 pm, the sky was growing ominous.

"The clouds were just racing by," Layden says, in the same documentary. "They weren't standing still, they were racing."

Offshore, to the south, the barometric readings were dangerously low. But there was no warning from the National Weather Service.

And then it came.

The hurricane with no name pounded Long Island, destroying fishing boats and vacation homes and washing away a Westhampton cinema. In New York City, the East River flooded three blocks of Manhattan. The Bronx went dark.

On Napatree Point, phone lines were down. And the Moore family knew nothing of what approached. A window frame popped out of the wall in the dining room. And the family piled into the car to evacuate. But the garage door, Anne recalls in Hurricane of '38, wouldn't open.

Back in the house, the water was pushing at the front door and the girls' father hurled himself at it. "I remember looking at my father trying to hold a board against the front door, or trying to hold the front door, and being quite sure, of course, that he could hold the ocean back," Catherine says, in the documentary. "And then the horror of realizing that — that he couldn't."

The family scrambled up to the second floor and gathered in a bedroom. Next door, they saw some neighbors at the window, waving. Those folks, at some point, decided to make a dash for the Moores' house; their own was giving way.

Catherine saw the neighbors on the porch, across the way. "And then a wave came, and they were gone," she says.

"At that point, there was more than a sense that we were not going to make it," Anne says, "it was almost a certainty."

The house shook. Mother and father, four children, an aunt, two maids, and a handyman dashed to the third floor. And then the house, the last standing on Napatree Point, gave way.

A piece of the floor suddenly became a raft. "Next thing I knew," Catherine says, "we were floating — we were on the water with the waves crashing on us."

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