Hurricane of 1938 providence

A damaged ferry boat sits in shallow water in downtown Providence following the unnamed Hurricane of 1938.

Just over 80 years ago, the Attleboro area learned what a hurricane could do.

There had not been a full-on strike by a major tropical cyclone in New England in living memory. Hurricanes were something that happened in other climates, to other people that you read about in newspapers or saw in newsreels weekly at the movies.

But no one who lived through the Hurricane of 1938 would ever forget it.

It would remain with those who survived — along with Pearl Harbor and the JFK assassination — as one of the chief events of their lives.

When the powerful, fast-moving storm slammed into Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts on the afternoon of Sept. 21 — after leaving a swath of devastation from Long Island to Connecticut to Narragansett Bay — it transformed the region’s landscape and changed how locals would view the weather forever more.

The storm surge put New Bedford under 8 feet of water and sank two-thirds of the boats in the harbor there. Downtown Providence fared even worse, finding itself under almost 14 feet of water.

In Massachusetts alone, winds and water killed 99 people.

Overall, across the region the hurricane killed nearly 700 and caused an estimated $5 billion in damages in today’s money.

But as awful as those numbers are, the area lost something else, too. “The greens and commons of New England will never be the same,” the Associated Press reported the next day. “Picture postcard mementos of the oldest part of the United States are gone with the wind and flood.”

Everett S. Allen, the veteran New Bedford Standard-Times editorial writer, author of “A Wind to Shake the World,” wrote in his history of the ‘38 storm, “What you have to remember is that nobody expected anything to happen ...; the people who had watched the weather in this place all their lives knew what they knew about it.”

We no longer have that excuse. Everyone with a cell phone has access today to forecasting technology — radar, satellites — that would have seemed like black magic to anyone in 1938, never mind the data available from broadcast outlets and the web.

While we’ve had hurricanes since 1938, what we still may lack is the will to do anything about preparing.

Even with all the information available to them, anyone in the path of a storm is all too likely to wait, to hope for the best, to “ride it out.” There’s a name for those people: victims.

Just this month, Massachusetts declared a hurricane preparedness week, urging all of us to take steps to get ready for the inevitable, if not this year than in some hurricane season to come.

Make an emergency plan: Know where you are going to go, how to communicate with family.

Prepare an emergency kit: Have water, food, batteries, medications and a charged cell phone ready to go.

Stay informed: Know where to go for the latest information on storms, evacuations and public safety.

For more information, go to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency’s website on preparedness: www.mass.gov/service-details/hurricane-safety-tips.

And stay safe.

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