Going Beyond the Call: Southern New England Telephone Company's Response to Natural Disasters in Connecticut
Hurricane of 1938
On Wednesday, September 21, 1938, at 2:30 p.m., a hurricane hit Connecticut. It is considered the state's worst natural disaster of the 20th century. The hurricane struck without warning due to late and inaccurate weather forecasts and invaded the unsuspecting state at a vulnerable time. Four days of intense rain had already deluged the area with nine inches of water and many rivers were already at flood stages. The hurricane brought screaming winds with gusts up to 186 miles per hour and horizontal sheets of rain that would add another devastating eight inches to the total. The storm entered at the autumnal equinox with its usual high tides and generated storm surge seventeen feet above normal levels. On top of the storm surge, a tidal wave of fifteen to thirty feet ravaged the coast and left it virtually unrecognizable. Areas such as New London also experienced the horrors of fires and explosions that threatened to destroy the city. The hurricane wrought a path of complete destruction with its winds, floods, tidal waves and fires. Six hundred and eighty-two people lost their lives in the storm's wake.
The state suffered unimaginable damage. The hurricane leveled trees and whole forests, smashed houses, destroyed buildings, and left country roads and city streets impassable. The floods, storm surge and tidal wave wiped out bridges, utilities, and rail lines. The telephone system was not spared from the hurricane's wrath, and SNET faced the greatest challenge in its history.
One hundred and six thousand of Connecticut's 342,000 telephones were knocked out of service. An astounding 1,500 miles of cable were destroyed. Over 5,000 telephone poles were torn down and ruined, while 2,000 others were bent and damaged. Forty-nine of eighty-five Central Offices had no power and several others were threatened by flooding. Telephone and power lines were hopelessly tangled and trees, buildings, boats, debris, and poles blocked all means of transportation. Under these inconceivable, dangerous, and difficult conditions, the employees of SNET dealt with the catastrophe in the true spirit of service.
The priorities of the company were to maintain power; protect against the flood in Hartford at the Central Office; handle the increased telephone traffic on the remaining lines; ascertain the damage; and throughout it all, provide emergency service. The employees responded calmly and quickly to accomplish those goals. Operators braved dangerous conditions to get to work and staff the switchboards, while managers and clerks handled other duties that allowed the operators to connect more calls. Engineers, accountants, supervisors, and supply personnel coordinated the efforts to keep the Central Offices functioning and the line crews well equipped and informed. The crews had to clear the wreckage of poles, wires, and trees, then replace or repair the poles, patch and splice wire and run new cables. Repairmen restored service; first to fire and police forces, then to hospitals and public utilities. Doctors and essential state services quickly followed, as did individual subscribers. Any emergency throughout the ordeal was handled with the utmost urgency. All of these efforts were greatly aided by the quick response of the other Bell System companies, who sent qualified men and women from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.
The response by SNET was an astounding success. Employees put aside personal danger in the name of service. Countless employees performed their duties under dangerous conditions. One operator waded through flood waters and climbed over downed trees and power-lines to get to work. Linemen forded raging rivers to get cables across. Many other employees performed tasks not normally within their responsibility so that the restoration of service could come about without confusion, friction, unnecessary delay, or incredibly, any serious accidents to workers. It took only twenty-one days for all 106,000 phones to be turned back on. The spirit, commitment, and dedication of the men and women of SNET were truly above and beyond the call of service.