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Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti


Rating: (Recommended)


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Now that this year’s hurricane season has passed, it’s all clear to read R.A. Scotti’s new book, Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938. If you think this book is a print version of the Weather Channel, that’s just not the case. Scotti presents a deeply interesting story of places and people whose lives were changed forever because of this powerful storm. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 15 (pp. 141-146):

By the time Rhode Island had grown to its full, if diminutive, size, it had a 420-mile coastline, anchored at either end by a bay. To the east is Narragansett Bay, with Providence at its head and the islands of Newport and Jamestown protecting its entrance. To the west is slipper-shaped Little Narragansett Bay, with Watch Hill and Napatree. Between the two bays, from Watch Hill to Point Judith, lie a handful of seaside towns, strung along a twenty-mile stretch of coast known as South County. This is barrier beach land — low-lying strands of sand and dunes with a mix of Indian and Angio names: Matunuck, Green Hill, Charlestown, Quonochontaug, Misquamicut, and Weekapaug. A series of similar beaches extends from southeastern Rhode Island into Buzzards Bay.

Barrier beaches are spits of shifting sands between two bodies of water, the sea on one side, lagoons and salt ponds on the other. The ocean builds the barrier beaches, and like an artist whose creation is never as perfect as the picture in his head, the sea continually sculpts and resculpts them. Pounding surf and ocean winds shape them, filling in the tidal flats with sloping dunes and dramatic bluffs, some as high as twenty feet. If you build on a barrier beach, you are toying with Nature. It is borrowed land on loan from the sea, and eventually, inevitably, the sea will come back to claim it. When a tropical intruder unexpectedly blows in, there is no more vulnerable place. Barrier beaches form a buffer zone of sorts between the ocean and the mainland. In a hurricane, they become killing fields.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 struck Rhode Island with a storm surge of unimagined dimensions. Like a barbarous army, it plundered the coast, gouging out beaches, leveling dunes, and rolling over bluffs, and when it had finished destroying its own handiwork, it took on human constructions. The ocean banged on doors and windows and burst through walls. It swirled into first-floor rooms and knocked down walls and stairways. Then it went upstairs into the bedrooms where families sought refuge, and chased them higher yet, into third floors and attics, onto rooftops, until there was no place to go but into the sea.

The density and force of water is a thousand times more powerful than the force of air. Under the double whammy of wind and wave, homes that had sheltered generations and weathered years of September gales folded as if they were built of cards. The sea swallowed some houses whole and smashed others to smithereens. Still others it lifted as carefully as a housewife rearranging the living room furniture and set down at a different place, sometimes a mile or more away, without splashing the milk in the creamer.

The suddenness of the storm surge was startling. Propelled by the furious wind, it came at such a speed that a man sixty feet from his front door and running all-out just made it into the house. Beach residents moved fast, but the sea moved faster. What to wear? What to bring? If they took time to pack an overnight bag, grab a toothbrush or a change of underwear, find a child's rubbers . . . if they ran back for the family silver or to check the gas burners, they might be wasting their last moment. A minute spent or saved could be the difference between life and death.

Many tried to flee. Families packed into cars and, pressing the accelerator to the floor, tried to outrun it. All the while through the back window, they watched their pursuer gaining on them. Others, thinking they might have to spend the night somewhere without heat, bundled into sweaters and slickers and pulled on boots to slosh through the surging water. They were dressing for certain death, because the burden of heavy clothes would weigh them down in the water.


Timothy Mee owned eight houses on Charlestown Beach and rented seven of them. On Wednesday morning he was working in Woonsocket, a mill town in northern Rhode Island. His wife, Helen, was alone in the eighth bungalow with their children, Timothy Jr. and six-month-old Jean, and their maid, Agnes Dolan. When the weather turned, Mee left work and drove to Charlestown. The Atlantic was turbulent, magnificent, and terrifying, and if Mee had been on his own, he might have stayed at the beach to watch the storm. But he was a worrier by nature, the kind of man who looked in on his children several times before he went to bed and always double-checked that the gas was off and the doors locked.

Mee was one of the few who believed that the thunder of the sea was a warning as baleful as any the Weather Bureau might issue. By late afternoon, he and Helen had decided to move inland, where the children would be safer, and they offered a ride to their neighbors, the Breckenridges. Four Mees, their maid, three Breckenridges, and two dogs crammed into the car and set out along the shore road through the driving rain. The ocean was slithering across the roadway, but the Mees had only one mile to drive to reach the mainland.

Charlestown Beach is one of the small oceanfront communities along Rhode Island's South County coast. When the sea came ashore, there was no high ground to flee to. Like Westhampton Beach and Napatree, each town had a single road that ran parallel to the ocean. Within moments it was swamped. Across South County and up through Narragansett Bay, a storm surge that one incredulous survivor described as "mountains high" turned these ocean communities into deserts.

Even on the mainland, those who could look across the tidal ponds had no idea what was happening out on the beaches. Visibility was poor and telephones and electricity went out as early as 2:30 P.M. Norman Behneke lived directly across the salt pond from Charlestown Beach. Even when cars were flooding, he said, "it was hard to believe that the dark creeping thing coming up the road was water. Suddenly, as you looked again, it seemed to boil, and out of the haze of the spray there loomed up something which stunned you." Bungalows from Charlestown Beach were riding a racing wave across the pond. Bodies, living and dead, piled up on the shore, battered and entangled by the wreckage of their lives.

A Charlestown Beach survivor described the sight: "Out of nowhere, there came one walloping big wave that seemed to tower above even the highest building, and we were washed for miles, it seemed, before the water subsided and let us down. It took only a few minutes to sweep the beach clean." On the morning of the twenty-first, there were seven hundred houses along this stretch. By nightfall, there was none.

Just down the road at Misquamicut, E. L. Reynolds, assistant fire chief, remembered exhilaration turning to terror: "People on the beach were laughing and joking, trying to put up shutters and fastening windows to keep curtains from getting wet. They thought it was lots of fun. Then suddenly their homes were under twenty or thirty feet of water. Some of the houses just blew up like feathers. I saw one leap seventy-five feet into the air and collapse before it hit the water."

The women of the Mothers Club of Christ Church, Westerly, were having a picnic of carrot and egg salad sandwiches at a Misquamicut beach bungalow. They had postponed their outing twice because of rain, and when the sun shone Wednesday morning, they seized the day. After a Communion service at the church, they went out to Misquamicut for the picnic. Zalee Livingston, a seamstress, brought her four-year-old grandson, but the thundering breakers frightened him. Rector John Tobin, who was returning to the church to conduct a funeral service, took the boy with him. By then, the women were halfway through lunch, their sandwiches more sand than salad. The wind was so strong, they moved their picnic to a sturdier house up the road. In a matter of minutes, swirling seas surrounded it.

In the midst of the storm, a worried husband drove his pickup truck to Christ Church, hoping for news of the women. At dusk, as the winds began subsiding, he and Jack Tobin, the rector's twenty-five-year-old son, rode out to Misquamicut. They drove through the Misquamicut Golf Club to the edge of the fairway. It bordered the saltwater pond, directly across from the picnic spot. "The fairway was covered with chunks of houses," Tobin remembers, "not splinters — big pieces. The man got out of the truck and stumbled over a woman's body. It was his wife. He started giving her artificial respiration." Tobin was studying medicine at Yale, but you didn't have to be a doctor, he said, to know the woman was dead. "Bodies that had washed across the pond from Misquamicut were scattered all over the green." Today, the names of the Mothers of Christ Church are inscribed on a stone monument by the church. It is the only hurricane memorial in the state.

Four hundred died in Rhode Island, 175 along the South County shore. Some oceanfront towns were reduced to mounds of wreckage ten and twelve feet high. Others were wiped away as cleanly as if swept by a broom. There was nothing left: except a few telephone poles, a couple of cement steps, a tub or toilet half submerged in the sand.


Timothy Mee drove three-quarters of a mile down the beach road. Another quarter mile and he would reach the mainland. He was driving slowly because the ocean was slapping against the side of the car. The engine flooded. Mee was pumping the gas pedal, holding the key in the ignition, trying to get started again, when a gust picked up the car with everyone in it. Helen and Agnes clutched the children, covering them with their bodies.

They were too stunned to scream. What was happening seemed impossible. Their sturdy family car, weighed down by six adults, two children, and two dogs, was tumbling down the road, blowing away like a lost hat or an autumn leaf. Children, adults, and animals were bumping together, banging against the doors one second and the roof the next. The car revolved three times, bounced to a halt, and skidded on its side.

Mee and Breckenridge managed to wrench a door open and pull the women and children from the overturned car. They huddled behind it for protection from the wind. Against such a ferocious force of nature they were as helpless as motes of dust, yet they had to strike out. The water was up to their waists and rising rapidly. They formed a chain, holding hands, when suddenly and without a bit of warning, a terrifying sight appeared from the ocean side. What looked like a polluted lake was bearing down on them. The water was a soiled gray, and towering over it another ten feet was a crest of murky froth — and the whole filthy body of water was rushing toward them. Helen Mee was holding the baby; Agnes Dolan had Timmy. Mee wrapped his arms around them all, bugging them with every ounce of strength he possessed. The lake struck them like a bolt of lightning and tore Mee's family from his grasp.

Reading Sudden Sea reminded me of watching Hurricane Donna arrive in 1960 at our bungalow at the beach in Roxbury, New York. The forces of wind and water remain pressed in my memory, and the fright and thrill of being in that storm helped me read Sudden Sea with added interest. All New Englanders who feel immune to hurricanes will learn from this book, and those to the South who receive the brunt of most hurricanes will appreciate the power of this big storm that skipped by them in 1938.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Sea.htm


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