Memories of the 1938 hurricane


My cousin Gerry Allen, who lives in Israel, is a voracious reader. Recently, she called to tell me that she had just finished reading a book about the 1938 hurricane that decimated the Rhode Island shore communities, flooded downtown Providence, and cut a swath of destruction through the state, leaving tragedy and death in its wake. Gerry wanted to know if I had any memory of the catastrophic event.

Many people have studied and reminisced and written about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, arguably the strongest storm ever to strike Rhode Island. Their accounts are available in books, in articles and online. But since Gerry had asked for a more personal account, I offered her these vignettes from the memory banks of two very mature adults who were elementary schoolchildren when the storm hit.

Sept. 21, 1938, seemed like it would be just another day in my fifth-grade class.  There was nothing in the weather report to hint at what was to come.

I began the mile walk to Arlington Grammar School, in Cranston, with Russell, who lived across the street. We always parted company along the way as soon as either of us encountered a friend, lest we be teased in the schoolyard.

As usual, the school bell sounded when it was time for us to gather by grade and form two lines, one for boys and one for girls. And so the school day began.

As the day progressed, the pupils became restive, as if sensing something was going to happen. Our teacher, Miss Buonano (whom I dearly loved) decided we needed a lesson in discipline. We would remain after school for 15 minutes, or more, if we did not pay attention.

By the time we were dismissed, the sky had darkened and the wind was no longer just a strong breeze. Friends from other classes with whom I ordinarily walked home had long since disappeared.

I began my trek home, and then I heard my name being called. A classmate, Gladys Long, was holding open the door to her father’s old Ford coupe. “Get in,” she said.

The back seat was crammed with neighborhood children he had rounded up while waiting for Gladys. Somehow, room was made for one more.

Though it was out of his way, Mr. Long delivered me to the door of my house, where my sister was anxiously waiting for me. She kept me occupied until my mother came home and my wet-and-bedraggled father arrived. We watched as tree limbs and shingles, someone’s dinner and garbage can lids swirled outside. 

That night, and for several nights after, until the power was finally restored, we ate dinner by candlelight, grateful we were together and grateful we had a box of Shabbos candles for light. 

The following memories were shared by my friend, Melvin Zurier. 

My parents moved to Mulberry Street, in the North End of Providence, in the early 1930s. They had heard that there was an excellent school in the area that accepted children from the neighborhood. My older sisters were old enough to enter elementary school. It was the Henry Barnard School, the laboratory for the Rhode Island College of Education. RICE, as it was familiarly known, was a “normal school,” a training school for teachers. I entered Henry Barnard School in 1933.

RICE was located in what was known as the Capitol Hill district. Every school day, we walked to Smith Street, across Francis Street, to Park Street, to get to school.

On the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938, we walked home, as usual, but we noticed that the trees were bending and swaying in the wind. Large branches had fallen from many of them. Some of the trees had been uprooted. My friend Bill Lewis and I spent the rest of the afternoon at his house during the storm. 

The next day, we saw many more large trees uprooted and tree limbs everywhere. 

A day or two after the storm, Bill and I decided to walk to Barnard to see if there was much damage to the school. We had heard downtown Providence was covered by a tidal wave, and that some of the rivers connecting with the Providence River had overflowed their banks as a result.

Barnard was near Promenade Street and the Woonasquatucket River. The river had flooded the lower floor of the school building, where the cafeteria was located. The cafeteria was now full of dead fish.

The hurricane and the flood gave us two weeks of extra vacation, which we all enjoyed.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at or 401-331-1360.