The hurricane of 1938, a Category 5 storm, delivered wind gusts up to 125 mph in Rhode Island, lifted the water in Narragansett Bay 12 to 15 feet above normal and killed 564 people in Southern New England.
Sixteen years later, Hurricane Carol, a Category 3 storm, killed 65 people in New England.
Could storms like those happen again? Yes, but memories are short, and those storms were a long time ago, so meteorologists have a tough task when they urge people to take warnings seriously and prepare for hurricanes.
“It’s been 65 years since this state was struck by a major Category 3 hurricane,” said Dave Vallee, hydrologist in charge of the Northeast River Forecast Center.
Vallee was among the public safety officials gathered at Quonset Airport on Monday to warn Southern New Englanders about the importance of preparing for hurricanes. The group, which included the director of the National Hurricane Center, was spreading the word as part of National Hurricane Preparedness Week. Hurricane season starts June 1 and continues until Nov. 30.
Illustrating the danger for a group gathered under a tent next to an airport runway, Vallee noted that in a Category 3 hurricane, the water from Narragansett Bay would flood across the runway and reach the top of the tent.
In the years since those two major hurricanes, sea level rise and development along the coast have exacerbated the threat to people and property in Southern New England, according to public safety officials.
Hurricanes don’t have to make a direct hit or pack as much wallop as the Hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane Carol to wreak havoc on the region, Jason P. Tuell, director of the National Weather Service’s eastern region, said during the airport visit.
Hurricane Bob hit Rhode Island as a Category 2 hurricane in August 1991. Hurricane Sandy was a post-tropical cyclone when it hit land at Atlantic City, New Jersey, in October 2012, but its storm surge was powerful enough to ravage much of the Rhode Island coastline.
“You had a close call with Sandy,” Tuell said. “Even hurricanes far away can cause a lot of damage.”
“You have to be prepared,” said Tuell, a Rhode Island native who noted that his 90-year-old mother lives in Galilee, about 2½ feet above sea level. “She’s got a plan. Do you?”
Here are some preparation tips from the experts:
Find out if you live in a zone that’s likely to flood. You can check on the National Hurricane Center website.
Put together an emergency kit and check emergency equipment such as flashlights, generators and storm shutters.
Make and review a family emergency plan. Before an emergency happens, sit down with your family or close friends and decide how you will get in contact with each other, where you will go, and what you will do. Get more information on making a plan at the Department of Homeland Security’s website.
Review your insurance policies to ensure that you have adequate coverage for your home and personal property. Consider flood insurance and remember water damage can happen well away from the coast. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor said FEMA has programs to reimburse those who lose property in hurricanes, but they’re seldom enough to cover the loss. The average payout after Hurricane Harvey was less than $4,000. Gaynor said, “It’s not going to make you whole.”
If you’re told to evacuate, leave.