August 1955 is hot, and wet.
On the 12th and 13th, the tail end of Hurricane Connie has passed, dropping up to 8 inches of rain over much of Connecticut.
And now it is hot again, this being one of the warmest months on record, thanks to a persistent flow of tropical oppression straight from the Gulf of Mexico.
There is an uneasy feeling in the air, a feeling in the bones that something is coming. The meteorologists may feel this too, but they don't see it.
At the Bradley Field Weather Station they have been tracking a hurricane named Diane. They are relieved when it makes landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1, and is soon downgraded to a tropical storm.
"Wet and worrisome Diane, once a hurricane but now only an overgrown storm, swept into Virginia today — getting weaker by the hour," a story in the Aug. 18 Courant reads.
The story says that the Washington Weather Bureau stopped "dignifying Diane with the name of hurricane" in its 8:20 p.m. bulletin.
Daybreak on the 18th finds the air humid and salty. The rain comes hard, but what sets it apart is not its intensity so much as its tenacity. It doesn't stop. When it finally does, Connecticut will have experienced the worst flooding in its history.
This, of course, is saying something when you have a flood history such as ours.
The state is home to thousands of rivers, brooks, streams, lakes and ponds, and as we are all well aware, it doesn't take long for a trickling stream to become a torrent, a meandering river to become a raging malevolence, a dammed body of water to break free of its man-made bounds.
In the colder months, a lingering nor'easter might be the culprit. In the spring, snowpack melting and runoff are an annual worry. In summer and fall, the thunderstorm lurks while the hurricane tracks and threatens. And then there is the Atlantic Ocean, which can invade on the crashing waves of offshore storms, or tiptoe inland amid astronomical high tides.
Weather, of course, is the catalyst. Weather empowers water. And owing to our geographical location on the ocean, and subject to the whims of the jet stream, we get a lot of weather here. In an average year, Connecticut experiences measurable precipitation on 130 days, which averages out to 45.9 inches (15th among the contiguous 48 states).
Although flooding is common in Connecticut, there have been in our history floods that have stood out. The Wethersfield flood of 1692 is an early example.
Wethersfield was founded in 1634, and slowly grew into an important shipping port owing to the fact that it was as far inland as large ships could navigate before the Connecticut River became too shallow. Business was so good that by 1692, six warehouses lined the banks of the river.
Then the river rose. Not only did the swift-moving water sweep away five of the six warehouses, it also opened up a deep-water shipping channel all the way into Hartford.
The thing this flood is most noted for, however, is that it created what is now known as the Wethersfield Cove.
Early Record Keeping
Flood data from the 1700 and 1800s was largely dependent on the recollections, diaries and journals of local residents, along with newspaper accounts. Official government records of flooding on major rivers were not kept until 1904.
In 1957, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched an ambitious project to gather information on flooding before 1904. Seven years later, a detailed report called "Historical Floods in New England" was produced.
Although the report may have lacked hard flood data, it was useful in helping to establish patterns. It also provided a flavor of the times.
1770, January, Farmington River at Simsbury: "The biddings at the iron works of Richard Smith was entirely destroyed."
1828, September, Salmon Brook near Granby: "There was a freshet which did much damage all along the line, particularly at Granby, where for a second time the great Salmon Brook arch bridge was carried away."
1854, May, Still River near Danbury: "We hardly get our bridges on their feet, before they are off again."
1875, August, Pequabuck River, Bristol area: "Bridges are carried away, streets are gullied, portions of the town have quite a ruined appearance."
1886, February, Shetucket and Yantic rivers: "The Shetucket and Yantic flooded Norwich Saturday, rising nearly 30 feet in 24 hours and reached the highest point ever."
1924, April, Still River near Winsted: "Highland Lake, the largest body of water in the state, reached a new high water mark tonight when eleven and one half inches above high water was registered."
Following its exhaustive study, the government hydrologists concluded the four greatest floods in New England and Connecticut history had occurred in 1927, 1936, 1938 and 1955.
The Flood Of 1927
In early November, northern New England is visited by a tropical system that stalls between two high pressure systems in Vermont and produces rainfall totaling as much as 15 inches in some places.
The storm and rising water has come without warning, trapping many surprised residents in their homes during the night. Vermont suffers 83 fatalities, including 55 in the Winooski Valley where the entire Montpelier business district is under 8 to 10 feet of water.
Rushing waters claim bridges, retaining walls, dams, trees, road embankments, houses, buildings and farmland. And it is all flowing downstream, threatening cities and towns along the banks of the Connecticut River.
In Connecticut, the flooding of rivers and streams in the north is significant, with rainfall in excess of 7 inches recorded. The Farmington, Mad, Still and Naugatuck rivers burst.
Widespread flooding occurs all along the Connecticut River as the debris-choked torrent flows toward the sea. Much of Hartford is quickly submerged. Hundreds are forced to flee their homes. In the downtown, South, Front and State streets resembled canals.
In East Hartford, the spreading water creates islands of houses, and police have to rescue many homeowners. Not everyone wants to leave, and one woman has to be carried from her home after her husband and seven children have already been evacuated.
Another man evacuates, leaving 50 chickens behind to fend for themselves. Hundreds of heads of livestock are left on their own. Rats swim for their lives. One East Hartford man shoots 100 muskrats for some reason.
At Brainard Airport, 2 feet of water fills the hangars, and engines and planes have been jacked up. Trolley service to Unionville is halted at Farmington. Raw sewage becomes a concern in Hartford, along with the stability of large oil and gasoline tanks.
On the river itself, men wielding pikes, axes and peavey sticks walk out on the accumulating debris attempting to loosen it. Twenty filled coal cars are backed out onto a railroad bridge to give it weight and keep it from being swept away.
After two days of watching and worrying, the Connecticut crests at 29 feet on Sunday night, and then begins to retreat. Of the 125 deaths in New England, three attributed to the storm are in Connecticut.
A Courant editorial notes that the Washington office of the U.S. Weather Bureau had been "caught napping" by the storm. It will not be the last time such an accusation will be made after a weather calamity in the state.
The Perfect Flood
When March 1936 arrives, the snowpack in northern New England is deep, owing to a colder than normal winter. On March 9, a moisture-laden warm weather system moves up from the south and stalls. It starts to rain, and continues for 13 days.
Rivers and streams throughout Connecticut become raging torrents. Water and ice flows tear out bridges, highways, roads, and railways. A dam in New Hartford bursts, and homes and buildings downstream are washed away or heavily damaged.
As severe as the conditions are statewide, the main event is in Hartford and other towns along the Connecticut River.
March 11: The Park River spills over and Bushnell Park is partly flooded.
March 13: A large ice dam forms at Bulkeley Bridge and the river continues rising.
March 15: The river reaches 24 feet, but starts to recede as the rain lets up.
March 16-17: The heavy rain returns.
March 18: The Connecticut rises to 25 feet but everyone knows there is more water heading this way.
March 19: The Connecticut is at the 30-foot mark. The east side of Hartford is at the bottom of the river. Bushnell Park is a lake. The National Guard, Naval militia and state police are rescuing people by boat. During the evening hours, the Colt dike breaks, and two are drowned.
March 20: The river is now at 37.1 feet. There is no power. The military begins patrolling after reports of "hooliganism" downtown. It becomes a tale of two disasters: While those forced to flee the floodwater mob refugee centers, flood sightseers crowd the dry downtown area where vendors sell candy and peanuts.
March 21: The Connecticut reaches the record height of 37.56 feet, a record that remains to this day. A fifth of Hartford is underwater, as are hundreds of parked cars. Some 10,000 people have been displaced. A curfew is in effect, liquor stores are ordered closed by 7 p.m, two more drownings are reported.
Downstream, the rushing water is also spreading mayhem.
In Middletown, Portland, and Cromwell 2,000 are left homeless, and many are quartered in the State Armory, the Salvation Army headquarters, and the Swedish Orphanage in Cromwell.
In Middletown, boats are strategically placed at the foot of every street leading to the river to carry hose if a fire started along the waterfront. A large, intact barn floats down stream, strikes the highway bridge and is demolished. Upstream, tobacco sheds are blown up with dynamite to keep them from hitting the bridge.
In Chester, stores and a few homes are flooded.
In Essex, workers labor to save boathouses.
In Lyme and Old Saybrook, there is little flooding but reports of tremendous amounts of debris flowing into Long Island Sound.
Slowly, as March 21 wanes, the water begins to recedes. In the aftermath, leaders decided to build more dikes to contain the river. And they will build them, just not enough of them and just not quickly enough. In two short years, the river will be approaching record flood levels again.
The Great Hurricane Flood Of 1938
When the date Sept. 21, 1938, is mentioned, the first thought is of the Great Hurricane, which struck without warning that day with heavy rain, a three-story storm surge that scoured much of Connecticut's coast, and triple-digit winds that toppled trees well into northern New England.
The Hurricane of '38 itself, will be covered in detail in a separate story in this series on historical weather. The following account focuses on the widespread flooding caused by the storm.
The stage is set for the flooding in the weeks before the great storm. Between Sept. 13 and Sept. 20, 7 to 10 inches of rain have fallen throughout Connecticut, swelling rivers and testing dams. The hurricane adds 3 to 7 inches to the sopping.
"The worst calamity in the history of Winsted, barring none," reports the Winsted Citizen newspaper about the Still River's rampage.
Near the West Branch of the Farmington River in New Hartford, the water runs over the head of Main Street for the first time.
In Norfolk, the Blackberry River produces the worst flooding in the town's history.
In the area around Meriden, the Quinnipiac River exceeds all previous floods.
The same is true for other rivers throughout the state, including the Quinnebaug, Thames, Naugatuck, Housatonic and Mad.
Meanwhile, in Hartford, as the Connecticut River rises, the drama of the 1936 flood is being played out again.
As the brown, swirling water continues to rise, workers labor to shore up the Colt and Clark dikes, and build a sandbag dike near Sheldon Street.
The key concern is a 3-square-mile area east of Wethersfield Avenue and south of Sheldon Street to the Wethersfield line. It was here, when the Colt dike collapsed in 1936, that the river poured into a squatters' village, drowning two, maybe more.
It is also here that city officials see the makings of a disaster. If the dike goes, they believe that huge oil-storage tanks will be caught in the flow and swept downstream into the Hartford Electric Light Co. generating plant. And if that happens, well, it could get loud.
Day passes into night, and the river continues to rise.
The army fighting the river — WPA workers, World War I vets, college students and assorted volunteers — increases to 2,000. Everyone is tired and ticking with tension.
Betty Bradshaw, a Courant reporter, visits the scene with two male colleagues during the night. She writes:
"I heard the men around the fire arguing. The tension at the dikes was awful. All around us nerve-weary men were ready to fight at the drop of a hat. They were beginning to break under the terrific strain of wondering whether they would save the dike and themselves, or whether the dike would break and they would be swept away."
At daybreak Friday, the brown peril is seeping through a half-mile section of the Colt dike. Army engineers summoned from Providence say there is only a 50-50 chance it will hold. Evacuations are ordered.
Unbeknownst to the public, Hartford Mayor Thomas J. Spellacy has made arrangements to immediately dynamite the Clark dike to the south if the Colt dike fails. This action, it is believed, will create another outlet for the pent-up river.
At 10 p.m. Friday, the river in Hartford reaches 35.6 feet. And then, on the brink of triumph, it starts to back down. Two hours later, it is in full retreat.
A Hartford Daily Courant editorial offers this assessment:
" ... the most calamitous day in the history of the state ... fire, wind and flood, have made September 21, 1938, a day of black catastrophe."
For Hartford, it could have been worse, much worse.
The Worst Flood In Connecticut History
To grasp the magnitude of the 1955 flood you have to understand the rain totals.
On Aug. 12-13, Hurricane Connie tracked north on an inland route depositing 3 to 8 inches of rain on the state.
Then, five days later, Hurricane Diane arrived, contributing a foot or more, which ran off into waterways because the ground was too saturated to absorb it.
The rainfall totals from Diane were astonishing: Torrington had a state record of 14.25 inches; Winsted, 13 inches; Windsor Locks, 13.97 inches; and Hartford, 12.12 inches. Westfield, Mass., received 19.76 inches from the storm, including 18.15 inches in 24 hours.
Trying to put the rainfall into perspective, a Hartford Times reporter figured out that 14 inches of rain comes out to just over 1 million tons — or 243,299,840 gallons — of water per square mile. And it was all on the move.
As Hurricane Diane sloshes northward, the forecast for Connecticut calls for showers.
What local meteorologists are failing to take into account is the storm's track, which is enabling part of Diane to remain out over the Atlantic, where massive amounts of moisture are being fed into its circulation.
"The weather bureaus north of Cape Hatteras don't have people who understand hurricanes," a Princeton professor will later explain. "They don't understand that hurricanes in the north act differently from those in the Gulf."
The flood waters come on swiftly, and in the middle of the night. Most of those who die are taken by surprise.
The highest concentrations of death and destruction are in Waterbury and the Unionville section of Farmington.
Of the 29 people killed in Waterbury, 27 are from North Riverside Street, where 17 homes that had been next to the Naugatuck River vanish.
River Glen, along the Farmington River in Unionville, has 38 homes scrubbed from the landscape, and 12 of the town's 13 deaths occur in this neighborhood.
The death toll statewide is 87, but some of the victims are never found.
In the lower Naugatuck Valley, funeral directors have to sort out and rebury the estimated 50 bodies whose coffins had been washed through the streets after the floodwaters undermine a cemetery.
Curfews are imposed in many towns, and martial law declared. In the hardest-hit areas, there is no water, no electricity, no phone service and no place to buy food for several days.
There were widespread health concerns, and 13 towns in the Naugatuck Valley, along with Putnam in eastern Connecticut, are declared health hazards.
All Waterbury residents are required to get typhoid shots, and the city's health director forbids funerals or wakes for flood victims, although graveside services are allowed.
The Torrington Fire Department washes the streets with disinfectant, and homeowners in flooded areas exhaust the supply of chlorinated lime, which is used to disinfect basements.
The total damage from the flooding is estimated at $350 million to $400 million, and most homes are not covered by flood insurance.
According to a state report, 507 industrial facilities, 1,436 commercial establishments and 922 farms are damaged to varying degrees.
In addition, 668 dwellings are destroyed, 2,460 have major damage and 5,213 have minor damage.
Thousands find themselves temporarily out of work and are forced to apply for unemployment benefits, which amount to $35 per week plus $3 for each dependent.
In Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Newington, Glastonbury, Windsor and New Britain, the floodwater soaked, muddied, damaged and disrupted, but claimed no lives.
This was also the case in Bristol, where the Pequabuck River inundated the center of town and swallowed the low-lying Forestville section, but did not kill.
Even in Putnam, where the Quinnebaug River cut the town in two, causing two huge factory fires and carrying barrels of exploding magnesium through the business district, there were no deaths.
Yeah, Connecticut floods.
Editor's Note: This account was distilled from news reports of the time including stories in The Courant and other state newspapers, government studies, historical weather books, Internet research, and previous articles written by Shea.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun