Hurricane "Carol" in Newport, August 1954

 ... rank has its privileges - or does it? 

by Jerry Norton, MHS Class of 1942

I well remember the 1938 hurricane when I was a freshman at Melrose High School. More vivid, still, in my memory is one that tore through southern New England on the last day of August, 1954, -hurricane "Carol".

It was during my navy days and our ships, destroyer escorts, were returning from refresher training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We had been tracking the storm which plotted well to the south of us as we proceeded up the coast to our home port in Newport, R.I. It was predicted to veer well to the east before approaching land. All was well when we tied up at the Melville piers just north of Newport. Our crews enjoyed liberty that night, little knowing what capricious Nature had in store.

We returned on board the following morning with the weather still serene but learned too late that Carol suddenly changed course and was rapidly approaching land. By way of background I should mention that automobile parking in the area of the piers was allocated for convenience by seniority. "Preferred" parking for officers and chief petty officers was adjacent to the piers just above sea level. Junior crew members were assigned parking on a bluff above the piers overlooking Narragansett Bay.

As mentioned, the fast-moving storm had changed directions and gale winds were on us so quickly that it was judged unsafe to get underway for the relative safety of the open bay for fear we would be blown up on the beach before clearing the mooring area. It was decided to ride it out at our pier with all the ships in our nest lighting off our power plants and using our twin propellers and rudders to keep tightly moored in our berth. By now the storm had reached hurricane force as we all maneuvered our engines and screws simultaneously. We were tied up four abreast and, communicating by radio, we were able to function as one. I was on the inboard ship moored alongside the pier.

As the storm progressed it was an eerie sight to look down at our mooring lines disappearing beneath the water which now was covering the pier. My duties on the bridge did not allow me to see what the crews of the outboard ships saw. As I remember their stories, they spoke of seeing debris and rooftops of summer cottages from the north end of Acquidneck Island floating down the bay, in some cases with people on the roofs.

What I could see from my ship's inboard position was a very dismaying sight. My year old Pontiac sedan and all the other cars in the lower parking area were being tossed around like billiard balls as the water was now inundating the lower land areas. Nothing could be done about it now. Our first duty was to save our ships.

The hurricane was, indeed, fast moving and in little over an hour the winds were subsiding and we were able to clean up and secure topside gear which had broken loose. Early liberty was granted to allow crew members with families in the area to check on their well-being. Sailors who had parked their cars on the bluff above the pier area were pleased to find their vehicles pretty much unscathed.

In contrast, what a sight greeted me and others when we walked out to our cars! They were all in a jumble with the winds and water having piled them into miniature pyramids with seaweed clinging to radio antennas and tailpipes. My car was on the outside edge of one pile with its hood popped open and as I peered into the engine I found I had the makings of an aquarium clinging to the motor and carburetor. It was a marine biologist's workshop with starfish and all manner of crustacea attached to various components.

Needless to say, my car and all the rest in that area were salt water damaged and declared total losses.

Who said, "Rank has its privileges?"

August 1, 2003

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