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Dan Lawlor: Natural Disasters are Moments to Define Us

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"I was on the last trolley out of downtown before the hurricane came," my grandmother always said. She was talking about the Hurricane of 1938.
There are different ways to think about the last one hundred years in RI:

  • You look at the changes before and after the Depression-era shift from Republican to Democratic control following the Bloodless Coup of 1935.
  • You can look at the expansion and decline of religious schools, or the shift from public to public charter schools.
  • You can look at the rise of the interstate highways, the cutting up of the cities, and the rise of the suburbs.
  • You can look at the rise and fall of the political bosses (Brayton, Roberts, Mancini, Diprete, Cianci, Belivacqua, Smith, Harwood).
  • You can look at before and after the Depression and World War II.
  • You can look before and after the Civil Rights Movements.
  • You could look in terms of immigration: the shift from majority Southern European to majority Latin American immigration.

Or you can think in terms of natural events:
The Hurricane of 1938, Hurricane Carol (1954), the Blizzard of '78, and the Great Floods of 2010.
This weekend, stopping in the Dorrance, a few friends and I reflected on the metal markers memorializing the flood levels that came with the Hurricane of 1938.
The national weather service writes, "The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was one of the most destructive and powerful storms ever to strike Southern New England... Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet. Sections of Falmouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts were submerged under as much as 8 feet of water. All three locations had very rapid tides increased within 1.5 hours of the highest water mark."
Downcity is full of historical reminders of that monstrous Depression era flood. After the First Works Festival a few weeks back, a friend recommended this PBS documentary about "The Hurricane of '38." For stories inspiring and depressing, check it out.
Years after the fact, I still remember my high school principal recalling the roaring winds that came with Hurricane Carol, back in 1954. The National Weather Service writes, "Several homes along the Rhode Island shore had roofs blown completely off due to winds which gusted to over 125 mph. The strongest wind ever recorded on Block Island, Rhode Island occurred during Carol when winds gusted to 135 mph. The National Weather Service in Warwick, Rhode Island recorded sustained winds of 90 mph, with a peak gust of 105 mph...
"Entire coastal communities were nearly wiped out in New London, Groton, and Mystic, Connecticut, as well as from Westerly to Narragansett, Rhode Island. Once again, as in the 1938 Hurricane, downtown Providence, Rhode Island was flooded under 12 feet of water."
Where were you in the Blizzard of '78?
Many Rhode Islanders remember the stewardship of the late, respected Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, who famously wore a flannel shirt while organizing relief efforts during the surprise blizzard that left over three feet of snow in the state. During the same blizzard, Connecticut's first female Governor (we still haven't had one), Ella Grasso, was also a dynamic and organized leader next door.
Recently, the Floods of 2010 were a shock. Days of rain produced flood levels not seen in one hundred years. In Kent and Providence County, hundreds of people were forced to evacuate. I remember friends and relatives of friends in Olneyville, Warwick, West Warwick, and North Providence whose apartments or homes - whether in a mill building or an apartment tower- were forced to seek shelter due to the rapid flooding. Firefighters and average citizens took risks to help their families, friends, and strangers. For days afterward, parts of the state were submerged.
Natural disasters are moments to define us. Let's stay focused help each other.

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