From Archives and Special Collections: Hurricane History

Rhode Island and South Coast communities have long dealt with the dangers and damages of hurricanes and tropical storms. The effects of these storms will only increase in impact as the Atlantic hurricane season grows longer and more destructive due to climate change’s warming seas. Before the advent of social media, photographic documentation of storms was circulated through printed publications, and was sometimes generated for insurance reasons. Items from University Archives and Special Collections (UASC) tell the story of hurricanes in Rhode Island in the twentieth century in a display on the third floor of McKillop Library.

Hurricane Display

Locally-published accounts of hurricanes held in University Archives in Special Collections, on display in McKillop Library.

UASC holds a number of volumes of hurricane photographs published in Rhode Island and nearby cities in the twentieth century, as well as photographs of campus created to document damage. The handwritten Annals kept by the Sisters of Mercy on campus from the 1950s to 1970s noted when hurricanes affected campus life. Though we are in unprecedented times, we can learn from the past about environmental resilience.

The Hurricane of ’38 made landfall in Long Island on September 21 as a Category 3 storm. It ripped through New York and New England, destroying about 57,000 homes. At least 682 people, mostly in Rhode Island, lost their lives in the storm. It is the deadliest and most destructive hurricane in recorded New England history.

The World Meteorological Association controls the name of Atlantic hurricanes, maintaining a full alphabetical list for six years’ worth of storms. The organization decides when a particular name should be retired after a particularly strong or costly hurricane, and then picks a new name to replace it. This naming convention and standardization began in 1979.

Hurricane Display, panel 2

Archival materials related to the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes on display, with primary source accounts from the Sisters of Mercy.

Hurricane Carol was one of the first storm names to be retired, though this was before the hurricane name standardization. The storm caused massive flooding and destruction in Rhode Island in September 1954. In the Annals, the account of the storm notes,

Hurricane Carol is in our midst. God is very good to us. Moore Hall roof damaged, trees felled; water finds entry into Room B, Mater Christi dormitory and library. Fr. Kelley, Columbian, who said Mass here this A.M. stayed until 5 p.m. St. Augustine’s Sisters are with us.

The campus lost power and not long after Hurricane Carol the community had to prepare for Hurricanes Edna and later Hurricane Hazel that autumn.

Hurricane Display, panel 3

Photographic accounts of hurricane destruction and survival proliferated in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts in the mid-twentieth-century.

Over the subsequent decades, the Annals record worries about damage to the campus from hurricanes, such as Hurricane Donna in 1960 and Hurricane Helena in 1963. Of Hurricane Donna, the recording Sister noted it was not as strong as the 1954 storm; Hurricane Carol lived on in the collective memory of the college.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob caused extensive damage to campus. You can view the documentation of damage and clean-up efforts from this disaster online in the Hurricane Bob digital collection.

Hurricane Display, Hurricane Bob

Hurricane Bob caused significant damage to building exteriors and the natural landscape of the campus in 1991.

As ecological disasters grow to be a more frequent part of life in the twenty-first century, what can we learn from hurricane responses, city planning, and reconstruction efforts from the twentieth?

On display in the library are the Special Collections books listed below. These works capture not only the physical impact of various hurricanes, but the emotional toll on Rhode Island residents. From these we can learn not only about the storms themselves, but how people thought about them and framed these events in their own lives.

The Great Hurricane and Tidal Wave, Rhode Island: September 21, 1938
Spec Coll F84 .P78 1938

Bristol County Hurricane Album: Wednesday, September 21, 1938
Spec Coll F87.B86 B75 1938

Hurricane Pictures, August 31, 1954
Spec Coll F74.F2 H85 1954

Hurricane-Flood Views 1938
Spec Coll F72 .C7 H7 1938

1938 Hurricane Pictures: with a Brief Story and 400 Views of Destruction in New
Bedford and Vicinity (a Few of New London and Martha’s Vineyard)
Spec Coll F9.A15 1938

The Hurricane in Newport, 21 September 1938: a Graphic Story of the Storm
by an Eye Witness
Newport Coll F89 .N5 W37 1938

Hurricane Carol Lashes Rhode Island, August 31, 1954
Spec Coll F84 .P8 1954

Hurricane Carol, Bristol R.I.: August 31, 1954
Spec Coll F84 .H87 1954

Hurricane and Flood of September 21, 1938 at Providence, R.I.: A Pictorial Record
Spec Coll F89.P9 H8 1938

Hurricane 1954
Spec Coll F89.P957 H96 1954