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Joe Marie experienced the 1938 hurricane at the Borough School in Stonington. | ( Michael Souza / The Westerly Sun )

Remembering the hurricane of 1938

STONINGTON — According to the National Weather Service’s information on the hurricane of 1938, “In Connecticut, downed power lines resulted in catastrophic fires to sections of New London and Mystic. The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18- to 25-foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod.”

Joe Marie remembers it well. At the time, he was 13 years old, an eighth-grade student at the Borough School. He lived on Cliff Street, “right behind the town clock.”

Except for his time in the Navy, Marie has lived his entire life in Stonington. To this day, he loves the borough.

On Sept. 21, 1938, he was at the Borough School, at the corner of Orchard and Church streets. “I went out for recess and it started to rain very heavily. They called us back in. Shortly after that, the football players were called in. I believe some of the tin roof (of the school) blew off,” he said

A neighbor of Marie’s arrived by car to take his son and Marie out of class, but the vehicle would not restart, leaving them no choice but to remain in the building until the storm subsided.

On the southern end of Cliff Street, near Denison Avenue, the water from Long Island Sound had crept up to about a foot from the first floor of his house. On Elm Street, his uncle was shuttling people from the southern end, near the pier, up the hill toward the railroad tracks. The need for settling on higher ground was imperative.

“The people that were at my house said they watched something they hadn’t seen before — the Borough Clock on the United Church of Stonington was swaying back and forth,” Marie said, demonstrating the extreme tilting using his forearm.

“We got home and stayed there until the water subsided. We decided it probably wasn’t safe to stay there, so we spent the night at what was then St. Mary’s parish hall (near the town square). A number of people from the point area were also in there. On Hancox Street, it was all underwater and almost everything was destroyed.”

The family stayed at the hall a night or two before returning home.

Marie also told a story of tremendous judgment under pressure. Away from the main school building stood a much smaller wooden structure that partially stood over the bay on some pilings. It was used to house the first grade. Marie said that, according to Gus Lawrence, a student in first grade on that day, “The building was shaking and the first-grade teacher, she decided to leave. She had them go hand-in-hand up into the main building. As the storm developed, it was knocked off its pilings. I think it landed in the back of the school ground. That probably saved some lives.

“As you looked down Water and Main streets, the trees, which were all 3 to 4 feet in diameter, had fallen in the road. There were fishing boats on Water Street and all over the dock area and the point area,” he said.

Marie believes it was Progress Administration employees that arrived to help with the cleanup. Armed with a two-man bucksaw in an age before chainsaws, the restoration was more arduous than the present day.

“It was three weeks before we had electricity, and longer before we could fully pass on the streets,” he said. “I remember some houses destroyed on Hancox Street and maybe a few on Water Street. The end of High Street was under 3 feet of water.”

During that time, the borough, like many other places, was cut off from time and the world. With no power, radios were useless. Most news traveled by word of mouth, an infrequent newspaper or a traveler’s account. According to Marie, some people had cars, but just as many didn’t, relying on the bus to take them into Westerly. People also relied on each other for rides, or for that matter, any help at all. People knew their neighbors better than they know them today.

Being a young teen at the time, Marie said he’d never seen anything like the storm. However, his parents, and, in fact, everyone he knew, recalled seeing a storm of such epic proportions. Their point of reference had forever changed.

Since then, 1954’s Hurricane Carol was among the worst storms on record to affect southern New England. Marie was unfazed. “I was living in Pawcatuck at the time. That was nothing compared to 1938,” he said.

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