A single photograph
Twenty some years ago, when the Carolinas were suffering horrific hurricanes, terrible flooding, devastation of pig farm lagoons, which rolled into widespread death of whole flocks of domesticated turkeys, it happened that I was officiating at a wedding with guests from that part of the country.
I had been invited to a rehearsal dinner and I recall standing on the deck of a house on the south side, looking out over that vast ocean, thousands of miles of it over which a storm can roll, unfettered, listening to someone say “you’re lucky, you don’t get hurricanes up here.”
When I tell this story, as I often do, strangers generally react as I did, opening with “of course we do. . .” trailing off, as I did that late summer day so long ago, with the reality that for all the weather watching and weather talking, for all the near annual proclamations that “this year we’ll get the big one” that storm of which some dream but others dread, hurricanes are largely events of the south.
We have had raging winds and tides and rain, but true hurricanes have been few and far in-between.
I also say, often, that I am of the generation that grew up in the shadow of 1938 and the round of Carol and Diane and Edna in the early fifties, for whom any years without a hurricane were a gift from God.
It was only within the last year that I was looking up high winds and found the highest ever recorded in Rhode Island was on Block Island in 1954, during Hurricane Carol. My mother talked until her death of watching the south wall of
the living room, a display of the fabled power of air pressure, that component in addition to wind and rain and tide.
Like the unnamed Great Hurricane of 1938, Carol flooded downtown Providence; some buildings in that city bear plaques with a vertical line equal to the height of the flood water.
There are places here that are underwater in the worst storms that arrive on the highest tides.
There is an interesting reality to the place hurricanes hold in our collective memory. ‘38 was the huge storm, that came without warning and did unimaginable damage. There is a point of land, a big sand bar extending from Watch Hill,
Rhode Island. It is still Napatree, and holds but a trace of a whole row of grand summer houses that were swept into the ocean.
Even in Watch Hill, the monied enclave of Westerly, they knew better than to rebuild.
It strikes my wonder more and more, when I make that rare trip to the mainland, if the tiny cottages grown into substantial multi-storied houses represent the lure of being on the water is so great that it trumps history. My own memories of Hurricane Carol would be vague, at best, but for that shadow memory of the beach pavilion, opened that summer, bright and shiny redwood, sand- and salt-blasted, painted State Beach Green before the wood had had a chance to weather, the fortress of a house I and others on the construction crew talked about for years, built to the specifications of a New Yorker who had withstood the storm in an old, still standing, house. My mother had old snapshots of things moved on the shore, a heavy wooden bench carried back to the edge of the Mansion Pond, wave-carried debris an alarmingly short distance from the kitchen ell of the farm next door, marking the reach of the storm, there was the cover of the old well down by the pond, not a crafted cover, just the roof of the hen house that had blown apart.
There wasn’t a newspaper here then and the Providence Journal booklet commemorating Hurricane Carol didn’t include a single photo from Block Island. The record was scattered, those gray and white snapshots in shoeboxes and in special cases photo albums, and the rumor of colored slides taken by vacationers and cottage folk.
So much non-productive, so much toxic, so much just plain, factually-flawed, dominates social media that it is a surprise and joy to find something real. I think the first new-to-me photos I saw of the aftermath of Carol were posted
on the Ferry Memories Facebook page. One of my first thoughts was that these were those amazing color slides, vibrant, showing not just destruction but the empty landscape, told a tale of much more than a storm.
Then Covid hit and the Historical decided to revive a Facebook page, and model it after Ferry Memories and hope people were home and bored and wondering whatever they would do with all those old pictures of Block Island.
We did not know, never dreamed, that among the postings, would be photos taken not just after but during Hurricane Carol, from The Narragansett Inn lawn including the one shown here. Several years ago when the whole of the
Dead Eye’s Dick building was elevated, it seemed cautionary, good long-distance planning. We all knew the corner flooded, water could easily slosh into the building, which was about level with the sidewalk.
Ballard’s had a well-documented history of storm destruction, but it was on the open sea; over in the New Harbor even flooding was just water rising; in 1954 the ocean crossed the Neck Road and ran down to Bridge Gate but there
were no buildings on that currently heavily-developed north east corner. There are now and I do wonder if we could just put a hurricane gate at Dunns’ Bridge; Providence did it to protect downtown from the car covering floods it experienced in ‘38 and Carol.
Many of us have seen Sachem breached, and the Neck Road washed over, the corner of West Side Road and Ocean Avenue flooded but, suddenly, with a single photograph, there is a reality of a true storm tide that hits home in a way all fancy computer models do not.