Sunday, October 5, 2003
It was a beautiful September day in 1938, as young lovers strolled the Rhode Island beach, golfers enjoyed a round on Long Island, New York, and Massachusetts lobstermen tended their pots.
Then, without warning, in roared one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
R.A. Scotti weaves together tales of heroism and tragedy as she sets forth the history of this storm and the people caught in it, in her book "Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938."
The storm had been forecast and tracked as it approached Florida, but it turned north, sparing that state, and forecasters lost track of it. It increased speed and slammed into Long Island, crossed Long Island Sound and battered Connecticut, inundated Rhode Island and claimed lives in every New England state except Maine.
Altogether, 682 people died -- 433 in Rhode Island -- and thousands more were injured or suffered property damage.
This was before the formal naming of hurricanes, though some chronicles have called this one the Long Island Express for its speed and the place it struck first.
On Long Island, actress Katharine Hepburn enjoyed a round of golf in the morning of Sept. 21. When the storm struck, Hepburn, her mother, brother and two others tied themselves together and sloshed through ditches to high ground to avoid the quickly rising sea.
When they turned to look back, their sturdy 1870s home "pirouetted slowly and sailed away," Scotti writes.
At Napatree, R.I., a beach community was swept away, many residents perishing, others riding to safety on bits of roof or other floating materials.
When morning came and the survivors gathered to look back, the beach was clean as a whistle.
"Not a sign of the road they had driven. Not a car. Not a house. Not a chunk of seawall. Not a shingle. Not a clothespin. Thirty-nine houses washed away like sand castles. A summer idyll gone without a trace," Scotti reports.
At Beavertail Island, off the Rhode Island coast, Joe Matoes watched the school bus carrying eight children, four of them his, start to cross the causeway. He tried to wave it back but it was too late. The bus stalled, the children emerged and tried to walk the rest of the way, but the storm surge caught them.
For a moment the air cleared and Matoes saw two of his daughters carried to the top of the bus, their faces distorted in fear, then the storm closed in again and they were swept away.
"The air was wet and salty. Salt water washed his face, stung his eyes, dripped from his chin, and clogged his throat. Matoes's tears and the ocean ran together."
Scotti has combed the written sources and talked to witnesses of the event to compile a moving and detailed story of an American tragedy.