Rhode Island Marks 70th Anniversary of Its Most Destructive Storm

September 21, 2008

Downtown Providence was flooded and neighborhoods were destroyed. A group of school children who drowned after their bus was swept off the road were among the hundreds killed.

It’s been 70 years since a catastrophic hurricane sped up the eastern seaboard and socked Rhode Island and much of New England, causing widespread flooding, deaths and millions of dollars in damage.

Reminders of the Sept. 21, 1938 storm, the worst in state history, are still present in black-and-white pictures of water-clogged streets and vivid anecdotes from grandparents and great-grandparents.

And this past weekend, elevated blue ribbons on street signs and telephone poles outside the Biltmore hotel in Providence and elsewhere in Rhode Island marked the height of the flood waters during the Category 3 hurricane.

Gov. Don Carcieri and emergency management officials commemorated the 70th anniversary Friday inside the Biltmore, where a blue banner was raised to show the height of the flood waters and a plaque about 7 feet off the ground in the lobby also marked the flood.

Preparations are better and forecasts more sophisticated than they were 70 years ago, but the state still remains vulnerable and must be ready, Carcieri said.

“We are going to be hit at some point,” he said. “I think the important thing is not to get complacent and do all the preparations that we need to do,”

Ribbons marking the flood waters were also on display in Portsmouth, where a storm surge killed 19 people; in Jamestown, where 7 children died in a school bus accident; and in Narragansett.

The 1938 storm is the most destructive to ever strike the Northeast. It killed an estimated 700 people and flooded coastal communities as it tore through Long Island, Cape Cod and other parts of New England. The hurricane is sometimes referred to as “The Long Island Express.”

“The ’38 hurricane is in the history books as the fastest moving storm up the eastern seaboard,” said J. David Smith, executive director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.

Hurricane Carol, a Category 3 hurricane, caused major damage in Rhode Island in 1954. The region’s also been hit since then by storms such as Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Bob in 1991, which were both moderate compared to the 1938 hurricane.

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