Hurricane Carol, one of the worst to hit New England, was so ferocious the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration retired the name for a decade after it struck in 1954.
Strong, sustained winds swept through Rhode Island and the eastern parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut, killing dozens and destroying buildings, automobiles, boats and crops. The storm took out power for days, Gov. Dennis Roberts declared martial law in Rhode Island and called up the National Guard.
Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine suffered as well, though to a lesser extent.
On tiny Onset Island, the storm trapped more than a dozen families who had no warning of the approaching storm. Fifty people crowded into a two-story cottage, and their sheer weight held the house on its foundation. Women and children went upstairs, and the men downstairs took the windows out of their frames to let the waist-high water surge through the house.
“We could see and hear the funnel go right up Buzzards Bay,” remembered a cottager, 10 at the time. “After the water went down the men went out to try to find the baby that the mother lost hold of. The baby was found days later floating dead.”
In New England, Hurricane Carol killed 65 people and injured a thousand.
The Birth of Hurricane Carol
Hurricane Carol started on Aug. 25, 1954, as a tropical wave near the Bahamas, and strengthened as it moved northwest. On August 27, meteorologists clocked Carol’s winds at 105 mph. The hurricane then moved northeast, flooding the mid-Atlantic coast.
On August 31, Carol sped up and slammed into Old Saybrook, Conn. Rosemary Carpichio, then 10, remembered it well. Her family cottage on Cornfield Point stood only three houses from the beach.
“My father took me out during the eye of the storm when all was quiet and the sun was shining.,” she recalled. “All of the roads were washed out and we were completely surrounded by water on the point . It was too late to evacuate.”
The next day, Carol morphed into an extratropical cyclone over northern New England.
Power Lines Sparking
At the storm’s height, winds gusted up to 125 mph, blowing roofs off houses in Rhode Island. The hurricane flooded downtown Providence with up to 12 feet of water. Winds on Block Island reached 135 mph, the highest ever recorded there.
Ronald Guilmette was living in the Rogers Williams Projects in Providence. He and three friends had climbed a tree to see the storm better. “The tree was blown done and I broke my right arm,” he remembered. “To this day I don’t know how I got to Rhode Island Hospital where they repaired it.”
Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay and New Bedford Harbor suffered storm surges of more than 14 feet. Rod Sherman was at a family reunion in Little Compton, R.I. He remembered many trees down and power and phone wires dangling in the wind. He also recalled power lines sparking as they hit the wet ground and leaves stripped from trees.
In Boston, Hurricane Carol tore off the spire of the Old North Church. Donations from children across America rebuilt it the next year.
National Guardsmen flew a planeload of dry ice to Boston for people who lost power and had no refrigeration. Gov. Christian Herter called up guardsmen in six Massachusetts towns to prevent looting. State officials then ordered the evacuation of Cape Cod, and 20,000 people left the peninsula.
Paul Phillips was an infant, staying with his mother and his grandmother in Dennisport at a cottage across the street from the ocean. His mother got him and his grandmother to higher ground and then helped to rescue more people. “A day or two later, there was a photo on the front page of the Cape Cod Times of my mom in the back of the truck, reaching out her hand to help someone get on board,” he remembered.
Damage from Hurricane Carol approximated $642 million, making it the costliest storm up to that point. The hurricane destroyed nearly 40 percent of fruit and vegetable crops — apples, peaches, corn and tomatoes. A third of New Englanders lost power, many for days.
“There were triple deckers facing ours, ” she recalled, “and one of two pine trees fell and sheared off our neighbors’ three back porches. My Dad ran out and yelled, ‘Is everyone OK?’, and thank goodness everyone was fine.” She said she’d always remember the smell of the pines and the fresh smell of the air after the hurricane.
Hurricane Carol wrecked another 3,000 boats and 3,500 automobiles. Carol caused such destruction that the weather service retired her name, the first ever for an Atlantic hurricane. It made a comeback 10 years later, only to be retired again.
Then 12 days later came Hurricane Edna. Edna killed 21 people, caused widespread power outages on Cape Cod, flooded roads and railroads in Main and forced evacuations throughout southern New England.
All in all, the 1954 hurricane season ranked as one of the worst in the 20th century.
This story was updated in 2023. You may also want to read about the Great New England storm of 1938 here.