August 28, 2014 08:10AM
By NANCY BURNS-FUSARO
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — Carol Nash and Joe Potter were cheerfully preparing for their wedding during the summer of 1954 when they were hit with a double whammy.
Days before the wedding, on the morning of Aug. 31, Hurricane Carol, the most destructive hurricane to strike Southern New England since the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, came crashing ashore in coastal Rhode Island and Connecticut, causing significant flooding, knocking out power for weeks in some areas, and leaving 65 people dead. The hurricane would forever change the face of Misquamicut.
On the Potters’ wedding day, 10 days later, Hurricane Edna, which followed a track slightly east of Carol’s, barreled into southern New England with hurricane-force winds of 75 to 95 mph, buffeting all of eastern Massachusetts and coastal Rhode Island and claiming 21 lives.
Their stormy beginnings may have brought the Potters good fortune. On Sept. 11 they will celebrate 60 years of marriage. The parents of two daughters, and grandparents of two grandsons and a granddaughter, the Potters have traveled widely and now divide their time between Weekapaug and southern Arizona. Earlier this month they sat on their back deck overlooking the Weekapaug Breachway, recalling the two hurricanes of 1954.
Hurricane Carol destroyed much of Atlantic Avenue, they said, noting that the section now called Misquamicut State Beach was once dotted with summer homes. Joe Potter, who was living with his sister in Ashaway, was working for a man who owned the old Sunoco Station on Granite Street.
“He had some houses and a boat in Matunuck,” Potter recalled, and one of his houses was washed into a field.
Carol, who worked in data processing at the Pawcatuck-based Cottrell’s Printing Company in 1954, remembers how she had to travel to New Haven by train for work since there was no power on Mechanic Street where the company was located, and all the machines were shut down.
The traveling time cut into her last-minute wedding tasks, so she had to enlist her mom, Lillabeth Nash, who took the bus to Providence to pick up one very important item.
“I bought my wedding dress at Shepard’s Department Store,” recalled Carol as she described the rigors of travel to Providence in the pre- I-95 days. “And thank goodness they kept the dress upstairs because the entire basement of Shepard’s was flooded.”
The Shepard Company Department Store was once the largest department store in New England. Hurricane Carol was not kind to Providence, its surge submerging much of the downtown in 12 feet of water.
But Carol Nash’s wedding dress survived, and her mother was able to retrieve it and lug it back to Westerly on Sept. 11, the same day that Edna came roaring into town.
There was a good supply of raincoats and umbrellas on hand that morning for the bridal party and guests, and when Carol and Joe made it halfway down the aisle of Our Lady of Victory Church in Ashaway, the power went out.
The Potters were not only married by candlelight, but their wedding reception was also a candlelight affair.
Susan Sullivan Brocato, a longtime library assistant and guidance office secretary for the Westerly School Department, was a child when Hurricane Carol hit the coast. She remembers the day before the hurricane, driving to Watch Hill where her family had a cabana at the Watch Hill Yacht Club, taking her WoodPussy sailboat, Skip-It, out of the water and cleaning out the cabana.
“There seemed to be a lot of concern about the storm,” she said. “It was scary, but there was also excitement.”
Brocato said that back in 1954, the cabanas were sitting right on the sand, level with the beach.
“We waited out the storm at our home in Bradford only to find, when we returned the following day, that the cabanas were destroyed,” Brocato recalled. The Sullivans spent the next summer at Seaside Beach Club while the Watch Hill cabanas were rebuilt.
When they were completed, the cabanas were raised on stilts.
Although Stonington native Joe Rendeiro wasn’t in the states when Hurricane Carol slammed coastal New England, he remembers well the stories his father told about the storm and the damage it caused. Rendeiro, like his father before him, is a retired commercial fisherman. On Aug. 31, 1954, he was in the Mediterranean serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Salem. As a member of the shore patrol, his job was to keep an eye on the sailors. He remembers walking into a shore-front hotel on Sept. 1, 1954, and noticing a woman reading The New York Times. When he glanced at the paper, the headline caught his attention.
“The headline said ‘Hurricane Carol hits New England,’” recounted Rendeiro. “For two days I tried to call home and finally I got through.”
When he reached his home in Stonington, his mother, Rosa Rendeiro, gave him another kind of headline: Stonington had been hit hard. There had been an incoming tide, and boats had been lifted up and thrown upon the grassy area of town owned by Tony Longo.
“They told me that boats were spread all over town and that there were sailboats up against the railroad tracks,” Rendeiro said. “It caused a lot of damage to the fishing fleet.”
Rendeiro said his father’s boat, America, pretty much survived, but needed a lift from Chet Perkins, the owner of the local crane operation. His dad’s car did not fare as well.
“My father had a 1952 Pontiac from Joe Brustolon’s,” Rendeiro recalled. “He and Joe played poker together so he got all his cars from Joe.”
Rendeiro said his father thought he had parked the Pontiac far enough away from the rising tides, but he was mistaken.
“It was totally destroyed,” Rendeiro recalled. “When I came home that November he had a brand new Pontiac.”
Misquamicut resident Don Gentile, a self-described weather junkie and author of several local history books, including the Arcadia Publishing Company’s “Misquamicut,” was a young boy in late August 1954.
“I remember riding down Atlantic Avenue after the hurricane and seeing all the cottages that ended up in the pond, cottages that had been lifted off their foundations,” said Gentile. “They were there for a long time, too.”
When the Great Hurricane of 1938 destroyed most of Westerly’s waterfront, demolishing structures from Weekapaug to Napatree Point, people were reluctant to rebuild, Gentile wrote in “Misquamicut.” But by the early 1950s, people were less apprehensive, he said, and cottages and smaller buildings like hot dog and ice cream stands began to reappear by the beach. Lenny Malagrino, a local entrepreneur, brought in so-called “Groton Cottages,” small houses that had been used to house military personnel during World War II, and sold them for $500 apiece. People could buy a house and a lot for as little as $1,000, Gentile said.
By 1954, more than 50 cottages dotted the beach in Misquamicut, Gentile said.
“Little did people realize as the rebuilding continued,” he wrote, “a tropical entity in the South Atlantic would again have a say in Misquamicut’s future. Hurricane Carol would soon be visiting Misquamicut and it would not be pretty.”
One of the property owners, the late Henry Morris, Gentile reported, owned a cottage on lower Crandall Avenue (“Hurricane Alley”) that was moved off its foundation and up the street by the hurricanes of 1938, 1944 and 1954.
In total, more than 4,000 homes, 3,500 cars and 3,000 boats were destroyed and 65 lives were lost as a result of Hurricane Carol, according to the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. With damages totaling over $460 million, Carol was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history until Hurricane Diane surpassed it the following year.
In 1955, Rhode Island Gov. Dennis Roberts introduced legislation to condemn the one-mile stretch of beach and secure it for the state by right of eminent domain. The legislation passed, and in 1959, Misquamicut State Beach was opened to the public.
Patty McKinney, whose family has owned property in Weekapaug for generations, was a little girl at the time of Hurricane Carol but vividly remembers the hubbub surrounding the event. On the day after the hurricane, Patty was in the family car with her mother, aunt and sisters, driving down Weekapaug Road to check on the cottage, when suddenly her mother let out such a sound that Patty was startled and scared until she saw what her mother’s exclamation was all about.
“There was a house in the middle of Weekapaug Road,” McKinney recalled. “We later heard that the house had floated across the pond and landed there, right in the middle of Weekapaug Road.”
McKinney said she also heard that the house was moved to Chapman Road, where it sits to this day.
“It’s the second house on the right,” she said. “It’s still there.”