…that Hurricanes Connie and Diane, which struck within days of each other in August 1955, exceeded the combined property damage of the Flood of 1936 and Hurricane of 1938? The latter alone had caused an estimated $100 million in property damage and the loss of 85 lives.
Connie struck first, on August 12 and 13, sparing the state high winds but dropping up to 8 inches of rain, particularly saturating southwestern Connecticut. Five days later, Diane arrived, pouring another 16 inches of rain on the state, hitting the Naugatuck Valley and the northwestern towns hard; northeastern towns such as Stafford Springs and Putnam were also hard hit, the latter suffering from the Quinebaug Dam’s collapse in Southbridge, Massachusetts.
Governor Abraham Ribicoff called the floods, reported in the August 20, 1955, edition of The Hartford Courant, “the worst disaster in the state’s history” and immediately declared a state of emergency. The state highway department reported that at least 17 bridges had been destroyed, isolating communities, and that numerous roads were blocked by rock slides. Major dams broke, railroad tracks were swept away, homes and businesses were destroyed, and drinking-water supplies were compromised. The Hartford Courant reported what eyewitnesses were seeing: “Lt. Col. Robert Schwolsky of the Connecticut National Guard reported from a helicopter: ‘I’ve never seen anything like Winsted’s Main Street. It looks like someone had taken cars and thrown them at one another,’” and another officer saw “a house, complete with lawn and landscaping, floating down the swollen river. A little later,… another house being swept by, smoke coming from its chimney.”
The Connecticut National Guard was mobilized, and 16 helicopters plucked people off rooftops and out of trees. The US Navy, Sikorksy Aircraft in Stratford, Kaman Aircraft in Bloomfield, West Point, the First Army Corps of Engineers, and the US Marine Corps supplied additional aircraft, rescuing hundreds of people.
Civil defense and emergency shelters filled quickly, and the American Red Cross set up a central disaster headquarters in Hartford. Food drops were facilitated by C-47 planes from the New York Air National Guard and the Connecticut Air National Guard.
When the event was over, according to the National Weather Service, 77 Connecticut lives were lost and property damage exceeded $350 million.
Contributed by Emma Demar, a Connecticut Explored intern and Trinity College student in 2011, and Elizabeth Normen, the magazine’s publisher.
© Connecticut Explored. All rights reserved. This passage originally appeared as part of the article “What a Disaster!” in Connecticut Explored (formerly Hog River Journal) Vol. 9/ No. 4, Fall 2011.