Jay Atwood and two friends were on the lower nine holes of the Misquamicut Golf Course in Watch Hill, R.I., when a misting rain began on Sept. 21, 1938.
"It looked to us like a storm was coming up, so we decided if we were going to get soaked we might as well go to the movies," recalled Atwood, who was 16 years old at the time. "We weren't going to be able to play golf, so we left and went to Westerly."It was about 1 p.m. when they abandoned their golf game in favor of the movie. At about 2:25 p.m. - "I can almost see the clock today," Atwood said - the power went off in the theater. The audience became noisy, figuring the film had broken.
"Finally, because it was dark in the theater, we decided to walk out into the lobby, which faced the street. Then we realized something abnormal was going on," Atwood recalled.
The Great New England Hurricane of '38 had struck, and Atwood, like thousands of others, had no warning at all. When the 170-mph winds died down, when the 22-foot-high waves carried by the storm had washed away, there were more than 600 known dead and more than 1,500 injured. New England-wide damage estimates reached $400 million.
History books and experts say an errant national weather reporting system, New Englanders' attitude that "it could never happen here" and an overwhelming concern over the Nazis marching on eastern Europe kept the people in the region unaware that the worst hurricane ever to hit the area was en route.
The day before the hurricane hit 50 years ago, the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington gave the following forecast for New England: "Rain, probably heavy Wednesday and Thursday."
"At that time hurricanes were tracked primarily by ship reports out at sea. You always had a network of merchant ships that sent in observations," said Roland Laro, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Windsor Locks, Conn.
"Probably based on the information available, they probably assumed the storm would make a regular movement up the lower Eastern Seaboard," Laro said, trying to explain why New Englanders and Long Islanders were not prepared for the hurricane.
"I don't think we've ever had a hurricane that moved with that kind of velocity," Laro said. "Hurricanes were not a very common occurrence in the Northeast. Most people up here didn't even know what a hurricane was and, of course, communications 50 years ago weren't what they are today."
World War II provided the U.S Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the National Weather Service, with technology that would assist in tracking future storms.
"Sonar, radar, aircraft and computers would be developed during the war," Laro said. "As a result of the advancement in this technology, after the war they came up with a hurricane radar network."
Once the eye of Hurricane of '38 touched down, somewhere on the Long Island Coast between Jones Beach and Saltaire, trackers were able to follow its path.
As is usually the case with hurricanes, the eastern edge of the storm is the strongest. Waves exceeding 22 feet battered the Rhode Island coast from Sakonnet Point near Massachusetts all the way down Long Island Sound into Connecticut. In Rhode Island alone, more than 250 were killed.
The waves battered coastline that was laden with homes, cottages and marinas, and left behind pristine beaches that looked as if the area had never been settled.
State Sen. George "Doc" Gunther, 68, a Democratic lawmaker from Bridgeport, Conn., lived at the time at the bottom of Pembrook Street, which runs right down to Bridgeport Harbor.
The front of the hurricane had torn a 21-foot racing sloop he had built from its mooring "and was bouncing it all over Bridgeport Harbor."
"The devastation was unbelievable," said Gunther, who remembered hundreds of large trees pulled by their roots in nearby Seaside Park. Homes were either shattered or their roofs blown away, he said.
Gunther recalled at least one death. "It was a woman who lived with her husband on one of the Thimble Islands. They never found her body," he said.
Because the storm was being tracked after it had reached land, people in places like Springfield, Mass., were able to sandbag rivers and evacuate to higher ground.
But as the storm moved inland it devastated the region's forests. Though cities and towns were quickly rebuilt through President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal work programs, it would take decades to restore the area's forests.
"The forest cover was blown down," said Christina Petersen, a University of Massachusetts forester. "In a single day, 2.4 billion board feet of commercially valuable timber was blown away. It would take about 20 years to harvest what was lost in one day."
Trees covered all roads going into the forests, and during the next spring and summer, many feared a great forest fire could occur. "What they feared was that there was going to be a fierce forest fire that could have covered Massachusetts and the trail of the hurricane into Vermont and New Hampshire," Peterson said.
It was Roosevelt who rallied workers - this time to clear the forest roads to avoid a fire that he felt "constituted the greatest menace in the history of any civilized community."
No storm in recorded history has ever caused as much damage to New England, nor has one forced government officials to take as much defensive action against future hurricanes.
In places like Providence, R.I., a giant hurricane wall was built that could be opened or closed to accomodate the weather. In Hartford, Conn., a giant dike was built along the Connecticut River, and all along the coast people known as "hurricane watchers" would be paid to stare out into Atlantic until their services would be replaced by technology.