"Trust To Yr Own Head": an Account of Hurricane Carol

Today in 1954 Hurricane Carole hit Rhode Island with its full force. Read this first-hand account by Providence resident Gorton Thayer Lippitt (1898-1978) from a recently unsealed folder in the Lippitt Family Collection, MSS 538. The letter was written to his children almost a week after the events described. He writes in haste, with many mispellings, but he captures the dramatic sense of the day.

Carol Industrial Trust
Hurricane Carol, 1954, Arcade Street, R.I.H.S. Graphics Lot 259
Prov, R.I.  Sept. 6,  54
A D S& and W (now on Atlantic)
I want to put on paper the hurricane news of R.I. as it would interest you. This will be jumbled, as I have not had time to sort out and arrange the items.  30 Alumni lost a few windows, a few slates, and some blinds. One window in my room had a neat 4 inch hole. Trees hearabout suffered. Electricity came on Saturday night, the blow was Wednesday. Phone was not interrupted—for us. Mrs. George’s gas kitchen (she is is Rockport) kept me comfortable. At Swan point we lost three of the five trees on the lot. Peanut’s stone is covered by the 14 inch trunk of a tree and I couldn’t judge well, but I think the stone is o.k. No other serious damage at our lot, or Farnam, or at Henry Lippitt. Flags on the new governor markers on both lots were broken, but I have repaired them. Elsewhere the cemetary did have noticeable damage. Plum Beach and Bailey’s Beach are wiped out. I can get no news of the Fuller’s Washout, nor of the Shack. East Greenwich suffered little. Banks came thru o.k., Hospital Trust and Industrial were kept dry. Peoples also. New Citizens on Market Square was Fludded, but records safe, and it was open Fri. a.m. Talk of lack of notice from the weather bureau is assinine. The people just didn’t want to know. I called friends, and prepared myself the nite before. Wed. morning I secured everything, bundled up in heavy underwear (very necessary and comfortable) with plastic slicker, old felt hat (which did a beau job) with rayon scarf twice about neck, and overshoes, AND BELT FLASK OF RUM, and walked down town befor 10 am. Heavy rain, NE gales, many limbs down. I bot a qt of burning alcohol just to have plenty on hand, at the City Hall Hardware, and worked back to Market Sq. High tide at 10:40 am, wind still NE, and water BELOW girders of Market Sq. bridges. A few minutes later wind swung to SSE and the water began to rise. Rise about 6 inches every 15 minutes, increasing as wind got going against ebbing tide. By 11:15 am, wind was more from the south, stronger, and water rose faster. I stood on Crawford St. bridge looking S toward Point St. bridge as the water was even with the parking lots on both sides of the river, and the parking lots were full of cars! And the gales had been on since 7 am! – I carried cotton gloves but did not need them. At no time was the wind unmanageable for an active man, tho I did see a vigorous man in his 70’s knocked down crossing the river from the Court House, rolled across the wide street, and slammed up against the wall of the Narragansett Electric Bldg. I ran and picked him up. He was dazed, had a big bump on his head, but walked away. I had no trouble with the wind at any time, save that I had to crouch a few times in gusts. It was painful to look into the rain in gusts, as it stung the face. My hat stayed on, stayed mostly dry inside, and was successful. I was dressed for 40 degree temp, tho the thermometer read above 70, and I was comfortable. My chief trouble with dress, was that I forgot to wrap spiral felt puttees around the tops of my overshoes up under my heavy cotton trowser legs. I emptied out a cupful off water twice. I put a strap around the outside of my light slicker at a low waistline, as I saw some slickers ripped. I had no trouble that way. The thick rayon scarf, wrapped twice round my neck was excellent. The only dangers were being blown into the river; falling, in trying to wade thru swirling floods in the streets, being hit by blinded motorists, being hit by flying debris, or falling signs, or exploding glass windows, or being blasted by the masterly and artistic cursing of the traffic cops as they tried to keep traffic moving to the last moment. The few people on the street were mostly panicky, and would accept anything told them, and direction pointed out, or an group movement. Later, I stood at the top of Angell street hill and directed traffic  north or south, denying them axcess to down town (which was a tangled mess in 4 feet of oily water) and not a soul challenged my authority. – As the water rose in the sewers (you could look down from the sidewalk and see the level rise) alongside the river, in Market Sq, I moved up to Turk’s head and thru to Exchange Place. That is a little lower than Market sq. and the water was already bubbling up out of the sewers and spreading over the square. Traffic became frantic, seeking to avoid the water, and the cops language became what I have described. Falling signs were more dangerous now, and rooftop debris was shooting about the streets. I retreated toward Memorial Sq, and sheltered at the NW corner of the old Industrial Tr Bldg. The rising water drove me back to the N side of the Hospital trust. My retreat across the bridge was being cut off. I wanted to stay but thot that I should get home and take care of my own room. With some wading I got over to the N side of the Arnold Hoffman bldg. Traffic from Exchange Place was now stopt. As the water rose I retreated to the base of Waterman st hill at the tunnel, and then, finally, up the hill. The steeple of the First Baptist Ch was swaying and weaving, I watched it, fascinated, surely expecting it would go. I was doing figure of eights. It stayed! I went up thru confused masses of traffic to the top of Angell St hill and tried to help the situation for awhile by turning everything either N or S. On the way home, in the eye of the storm, with pressure very low (as I learned later at the room), I was scared by a very big elm nearly parking on top of me in a sudden gust. I got out, but my heart started to pound and do irregular things. I dropped in the doorway to relax, but without much success. Finally, I dug out my tiny flask of rum and downed it. By the time I could count ten, my heart was normal, and I got up and walked home. No slightest ill effect! The East Side was seriously hurt. It was bad along Hope between Angell and Benevolent. 107 Benevolent was not hurt at all. The huge elm at the corner of Hope and Benevolent was not hurt, only a few very small branches! Wickford Hbr is reported very bad. Alex: thanks for the Grarranty Survey, very interesting. I enclose NRA brassards, put em on your hiking packs, I have one on mine now. The NRA had an endowment brassard made special for me and sent it with their compliments! So I bot three (50 cents apiece) for you fellows. Some punkins, yr old man! I would like some word from Rual, I have a little uneasiness as to their possible wind damage. Most of the looting and vandalism was along the shore, but I have felt the dark city streets, blocked with trees, were not too healthy. Many gasoline electric generators in use. I prefer my alky boat stove and my candles; but I did have a gas kitchen downstair. You fellows should take thot for emergency food, water, refrigeration, heat, cook stove, lite, flashlites, first aid, AND RUM. Five gals of gas for yr car. I drew 2 gals of water in bottles for drinking on the day before the blo, now I am happy to empty it out again. The chief lesson to me is that the people don’t want to hear what they hear. In an emergency, leave the crowd and trust yr own head.
Lufenkisses to all,
Carol Arcade
Hurricane Carol, 1954, The flooded Arcade Building, R.I.H.S. Graphics Lot 259

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