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Some more really bad CT storms

If You Ask Me

A few years ago, on the 65th anniversary of the 1938 hurricane and the 50th anniversary of the 1955 flood, Connecticut’s worst weather-related disasters, I wrote about each of them for the now departed Connecticut section of The New York Times.

With respect and sympathy for all who suffered through this year’s disastrous hurricane and snowstorm, they can’t be compared for severity with the 1938 and 1955 storms. Consider:

At the height of the 1938 hurricane, a tidal wave drove the 500-foot sailing ship Marsala into a warehouse complex along the New London docks, causing explosions and six fires that burned out of control for more than seven hours, destroying a quarter-mile of the business district. Firefighters worked in water up to their necks as they fought to bring the fire under control.

In early August 1955, shop windows along Winsted’s Main Street had been displaying signs celebrating the upcoming “Greater Winsted Days, Aug. 18, 19, 20” but on Aug. 19, nearly all those shops were gone. They were washed away after remnants of hurricanes Connie and Diane saturated Winsted and 70 other Connecticut towns with more than 25 inches of rain in a week.

The state’s death toll in the 1955 flood was about 80, including 26 drowned when flood waters swept away 13 houses on a single Waterbury street. Seventeen more people were killed in a largely forgotten second flood in October.

The Great Hurricane of 1938, as it came to be known before storms were named for people, left 682 dead on Long Island and along the New England coast, more than half of them in Rhode Island, and 90 in Connecticut.

There were eight deaths associated with this summer’s hurricane and 10 were reported killed in the October snowstorm, one less than the toll in that forgotten, second flood of 1955.

The 1938 hurricane could have been much worse. If it had hit a few weeks earlier than Sept. 21, during the peak of the summer season, the death toll would have been closer to 6,000 than 600, wrote William Manchester in his history of the Depression years.

Hardest hit were the 70 miles of Connecticut coast not sheltered by Long Island. “The lighthouse tender Tulip draped its frame across the railroad tracks behind the (New London) Custom House,” wrote historian Herbert Janick. The Tulip, a 300-footer, sat on the tracks for 17 days and was reportedly “very difficult to move.” Stonington had a fishing fleet of more than 50 before the hurricane; two boats survived.

The 1938 hurricane took down 50,000 trees along with 5000 utility poles. Tens of thousands more were damaged and the cleanup in both 1938 and 1955 took months. Because they were warm weather storms in a pre-air-conditioned Connecticut, power outages seemed to have been less of an issue in both 1938 and 1955. Of far greater concern were the widespread property loss and, of course, the loss of life.

In the aftermath of both tragedies, there were the usual pledges of never letting it happen again and some preventive actions have proven successful.

In the 1940s, Hartford buried the downtown Park River in reinforced concrete tunnels and erected a series of dikes that removed the Connecticut River’s ability to flood city streets.

The 1955 flood made a hero of the governor, Abe Ribicoff, who had been elected by 3000 votes in 1954 and would be re-elected by a quarter of a million in 1958. The governor invited President Eisenhower to visit the devastated state and Ike offered to call a special session of Congress if it was needed to speed aid to the state. It wasn’t, but Eisenhower would carry Connecticut in a landslide in 1956.

Ribicoff impressed the voters by shutting down $34 million in state building projects to preserve credit for flood relief and rehabilitation. In the following years, federally financed flood control dams were built near Winsted and other communities.

When I first wrote about the 1938 hurricane, the warning coordinator at the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass., assured me residents are now always warned of severe weather well in advance.

“But that only works if people pay attention,” he added. People and power companies.

Salisbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.