Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricanes Past

Hurricane Irene, currently predicted to hit us straight-on this Sunday, is expected to be the worst hurricane we've had in decades. Since I am a historian, that naturally got me thinking about past hurricanes. The two worst on record were in 1938 and 1955.

On September 21, 1938, Connecticut and Rhode Island were struck by a hurricane which caused severe flooding throughout both states and Long Island.  Called “New England’s Greatest Disaster,” the hurricane and flood caused $500 million in property damage and killed 682 people.  The bulk of the damage occurred in coastal communities and in eastern Connecticut, but it impacted people in Waterbury. Some were stranded in NYC, unable to get back to Waterbury. Others lost property on the shoreline. Charles McTernan's summer camp for boys, Crystal Beach Camp at Saybrook, was wiped out. 

Track of the 1938 Hurricane, from
NOAA's ClimateWatch Magazine.

The Connecticut State Library has a set of aerial photographs showing the damage from the 1938 hurricane available online.

In 1955, the damage came not so much from a single hurricane, but from the massive flooding which followed. In August of 1955, Connecticut was drenched with heavy rains from two hurricanes, Connie and Diane. Hurricane Connie brought 3.5 inches of rain to Waterbury on August 13.  Less than a week later, on August 18 and 19, Hurricane Diane unleashed 8.06 inches of rain on Waterbury. North of Waterbury, Torrington recorded 14.25 inches of rainfall from Diane.

The heavy rains resulted in torrential flooding throughout the Naugatuck River valley on Friday, August 19. In Waterbury, Mayor Raymond Snyder declared a state of “extreme emergency” shortly after 3 a.m. The waters reached their highest point seven hours later, cutting the city in half.

View of the 1955 flood from Waterbury Hospital.
Collection of Mattatuck Museum.

Back in 2005, I put together an exhibit about the Flood of '55 at the Mattatuck Museum, which has an amazing collection of photographs and films of the flood, as well as many powerful oral histories from city residents sharing their memories of what happened.

Twenty-nine people in Waterbury were killed by the flood. Eighty-five businesses were destroyed.  Dozens of houses and apartment buildings were swept away. Four of the city’s seven bridges crossing the Naugatuck River were washed out. A week went by before electricity was restored to Waterbury; gas and safe drinking water were restored in September. Property damage in Waterbury was estimated at $54 million. 

Downtown was completely under water, as was Brooklyn, South Main Street and Watertown Avenue.  Flooding like this should never happen again--a series of flood control dams were constructed after to prevent a repeat catastrophe. As we've seen this summer, however, localized flash flooding can and does happen. I do not recommend trying to drive anywhere in Waterbury during the hurricane this weekend!

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