As you may recall, in the previous blog, I set the scene for The Great Hurricane of 1938. It had been raining for several days prior to the hurricane's landfall on Long Island. The ground was saturated, and the rivers were already threatening to flood. Residents were unaware of the storm's approach since meteorologists in Washington DC expected the storm to blow itself out over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Back then meteorologists didn't have satellites, radar or computers to help them track and evaluate storms.
When the storm hit on Wednesday, September 21, 1938, the town was buffeted with 80 mph winds. It was the first hurricane to hit Greenwich since 1896. A tidal wave of approximately 8- feet hit Greenwich Harbor and caused a power failure at the Grass Island Sewage Plant. Many boats were ripped from their moorings, sunk or ended up on sidewalks and roads. Many trees fell and snapped power lines. Roads were closed since trees and downed wires blocked traffic. Many live electrical wires were dangling and snaking around with sparks flying. Fortunately, no major fires were ignited. However, this created a safety problem since police cars, fire trucks and ambulances couldn't pass. A huge tree in front of the Methodist Church across from the YMCA fell over, barely missing two men who had to jump out of their car.
There is no doubt residents were caught by surprise and suffered physical stress because of the storm's ferocity. Pemberwick experienced major flooding along the Byram River. Since there had been so much rain, the river was close to going over bank. The hurricane compounded matters because the headwinds were pushing north, up the river. Since the water couldn't empty into the Sound, it had no place to go except sideways. Fortunately, as the storm continued northward, the wind shifted to the northwest and helped push the water into the Sound. Further inland, Conyers Farm lost about 50% of the apples and pears left on the trees. Fortunately, the workers had harvested some before the storm hit, but it was still a great loss for the farm. Damage was estimated to be in the thousands.
Car in flood at Arch Street parking lot during the 1938 Hurricane. Maher Brothers
building and dock on Greenwich Harbor can be seen in upper left. Town maintenance
building (which is now Arch Street Teen Center) can be seen in upper right. Hurricanes were named by the military during World War II. It wasn't until 1953 that the
U.S. Weather Bureau started naming hurricanes.
COURTESY: John Gotch Photo Collection
The Pemberwick area, Shorelands and Edgewood areas in Old Greenwich were all flooded. One woman reported water up to the second floor in her house. Outboard motorboats made their away through what had been major roads in Pemberwick, Cos Cob and Old Greenwich. Two hundred people had to be evacuated. Many people had to be rescued from their homes by the Red Cross, American Legion, Fire and Police Departments and Sea Scouts.
For the first time in Greenwich history, Battery F of the 232nd Field Artillery Company of the Connecticut National Guard had to be called out. The soldiers met on a regular basis at the CNG Armory on Mason Street to drill. Officials felt they were needed to protect property, prevent looting and vandalism. When the alarm sounded (the fire horn), the soldiers reported promptly. They, too, were involved in many rescues made necessary by the storm.
Two boys and a police dog (belonging to John Pakine) were riding on a float in Byram when a wave lifted up the float and carried it over a seawall. Although the boys were able to jump to safety, the dog was catapulted from the float and thrown into the churning sea. The dog was never seen again. Dogs, cats, and livestock, including horses, cows, pigs and chickens, had to be rescued!
Passengers in a boat off Great Island in the Sound had to be rescued by emergency personnel. Mrs. Sherwin Badger, her gardener Robert Gagnon, and two young boys were sailing when they were caught in the storm. It took over 6 hours (4pm to 10:15pm) to complete the rescue mission. A woman had to be carried by 3 policemen through flood waters from John's Island near Bruce Park to dry land. She stayed with friends on Indian Chase Drive. Salvatore Tannone, who was driving along Valley Road, skidded and drove off the road into 6-feet of water. He had to break the window on the driver's side, and swim up to the surface to escape. Fortunatley, he escaped unscathed. A resident of Old Greenwich, H.D. Weber, who lived on Nawthorne Lane, moved over to the Ferris House on Shore Road to escape the flood. It must have been too stressful for him because he died of a heart attack the following day. Another man, Prosecuter Lewis Sisson, also suffered a heart attack, but survived.
Greenwich Hospital was without power. Despite this inconvenience, doctors successfully delivered a new baby by candlelight! The lack of electricity also effected the Greenwich Time. An engraving company which prepared photos for inclusion in the paper was unable to reproduce shots taken of the damage until the next day!
The Indian Harbor Yacht Club reported many boats had sunk, been ripped from their moorings and gone missing. Some boats were even tossed onto roads and dry land. The tidal surge threatened to reach the top of the tanks at the sewage plant and wash raw sewage into Greenwich Harbor. An employee risked his life to stay and restart a water pump to prevent this from happening. A taxi driver, Louie Scieli, gave up his fares for the night to help rescue people in the Shorelands. In the process, he found a wallet floating in the water, which he made sure got back to the owner.
One of the most dramatic rescues occured on Island Beach. Caretakers Mr and Mrs Metzger worked to try and save whatever they could on the island. A tidal wave completely washed over Island Beach. The destruction was incredible! Most of the wooden pier was washed out. Bath houses on the Pavillion (west) side of the island were demolished. A boardwalk was ripped up. Three cottages were knocked off their foundations and two others were totally destroyed. The Metzgers had to fight for their lives! They had to climb to the highest point on the island. This turned out to be the roof of the Pavillion. Despite climbing to the apex, water came up to their knees. They feared that they might be carried out to sea. There was no way to call into Greenwich for help. It wasn't until the water receded the next day that Superintendent of Parks Edward Palmer was able to take a boat out to Island beach. He found the Metzgers tired, drenched and hungry. Palmer rescued the Metgers from their perilous perch.
Once the storm passed, officials began to assess the damage. The devastation was estimated at $1-million at first, but then quickly jumped to $3-million (in 1938 dollars). A total of 8.48-inches of rain had fallen in five days. The tide was registered to be 36-inches higher than the previous record set in 1901. All kinds of debris was found floating in the flood waters. Many people were temporarily homeless. There was no doubt that this was the worst storm the town had ever seen up to that point. Today, we are better prepared for these situations. There are satellites to monitor storms; radio and television updates; improved communications; and well-trained emergency response teams to ensure our safety. Hopefully, we won't have many storms like this in the future; but if we do, we'll be ready.
SOURCE: Greenwich Time