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Irene conjures memories of 'great' storm of 1938

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ERIKA NIEDOWSKI
August 26, 2011
— What Evelyn Katzman remembers most about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 are the floating store mannequins.

A self-described Army brat, she had recently moved to Providence with her parents from Atlanta. She was 30, newly employed at Cherry and Webb, a specialty store downtown. It was Sept. 21, a Wednesday.


The elevator wasn't working the power had just cut out so she went to tell her supervisor. That's when she saw them: two human forms, from the coat shop across the way, floating down Westminster Street.


The manager of another department store had just called to sound a warning.


"He said, 'Lock the doors, the water's coming in,'" said Katzman, now 103 and living in Providence at an assisted living facility not far from the head of the Narragansett Bay.


It's been nearly 73 years since the so-called Great New England Hurricane one of the most powerful and destructive storms ever to hit southern New England. The storm now bearing down on the Northeast, Irene, has drawn comparisons to the one from way back then which, according to the National Weather Service, killed nearly 600 people and injured 1,700.


About 8,900 houses across southern New England were destroyed. More than 15,000 others were damaged.


It brought its wrath first to New York's Long Island, then to Milford, Conn. It sped northward at 60 miles an hour. Tides were already higher than normal as they are now with Irene headed this way.


The Great Hurricane produced tides from New London, Conn., east to Massachusetts' Cape Cod that were between 18 feet and 25 feet, the weather service says. Communities along the Narragansett Bay were devastated. Storm surges of 12 feet to 15 feet destroyed most of the homes along the coast there. A surge of nearly 20 feet left Providence drowning in water. Years later, the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier would be built to try to shield the capital city from repeat devastation.


For those who lived through the Great Hurricane and many of them have since died Irene's impending arrival has brought some of the memories back. Three other residents at the Tockwotton Home, a Providence-based assisted living facility and nursing home, shared what they remember with The Associated Press on Thursday.


Joan O'Connor, 85, vividly recalls the way the wind kept billowing out her sleeveless cotton dress as she walked home from junior high that day, blissfully unaware of what was coming.


She normally took the bus. But it was Indian summer, so she and a few friends headed home on foot, stopping to get sodas along the way. Her dress was flying every which way; she kept having to pat it down on her legs.


At home, the shingles on her parents' old house in Providence started flapping around. The lights went out. When they pulled out a kitchen drawer to get some candles, the family cat climbed back there and was missing for hours. Eventually, they found some kerosene lamps in the basement that worked far better than candles.


"It was kind of exciting," said O'Connor. "Except being without power."


Mary Johnston, 95, who was 22 and living in Pawtucket at the time, remembers seeing water almost to the tops of buses in Providence. There were trees down and debris all over. The power was out. Her husband worked at a bank, where he ended up being stuck for a week, she says.


"A lot of the roofs were blowing off the houses," she said in her room, where she had set aside two candles and a flashlight. "I just remember what a mess. ... Everything was almost at a standstill for a week."


For Leah Abrams, 92, the Great Hurricane put life on hold for much longer than that. She, her parents and three brothers were without electricity or gas at their home in Bristol, a city on Narragansett Bay's east side, for six weeks, she said. There was no water either, until the fire department came by and delivered some.


She remembers how the boats from a local manufacturer were just carried up and away, left scattered all over the roadway.


"I shiver every time I hear" about Hurricane Irene, Abrams said. "Let's hope it bypasses" New England.



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