August 19: Back-to-Back Hurricanes Cause Deadly & Catastrophic Statewide Flooding

 

Today in 1955, torrential rains from Hurricane Diane — the second hurricane to hit Connecticut in five days — wreaked flood-borne death and devastation across the state. After Hurricane Connie dumped six inches of water on Connecticut earlier in the week, the 14 – 20 additional inches of rain from Diane proved too much for the state’s rivers and streams to bear. In the dark, early morning hours of August 19, floodwaters roared through dozens of neighborhoods as major rivers like the Farmington, Quinebaug, and Naugatuck crested their banks. Entire homes were carried downstream, massive iron bridges were washed away, and main streets in towns like Putnam, Torrington, and Waterbury became raging torrents in one of the most catastrophic floods in Connecticut history. Nearly a hundred people died because the worst of the floodwaters struck before sunrise, when most residents were asleep. Thousands of homes experienced flood damage or were completely lost. An estimated 86,000 people lost their jobs as dozens of major factory buildings — strategically located along major rivers — were destroyed in the deluge.

The following day, President Eisenhower declared Connecticut a major disaster area as both state and federal cleanup efforts began in earnest.  Hundreds of stranded Connecticans were rescued by boat and helicopter through the joint efforts of the National Guard and Coast Guard. Within days, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers imported and installed several portable, temporary bridges — originally designed to be used in European war zones in World War II — to alleviate the transportation gridlock caused by so many of the state’s bridges being washed away. During the flood and its aftermath, Putnam Mayor John Dempsey rose to statewide political prominence through his skillful and tireless crisis-management of the disaster. He would go on six years later to become one of Connecticut’s most popular and effective governors, serving nearly a decade in office.

While the catastrophic Flood of 1955 did prompt major upgrades to Connecticut’s river monitoring practices and dam systems, the cost was steep, both in lives and property. A state commission reported three months after the flood that Connecticut sustained over $170 million in cumulative damages — an amount equal to over $1.5 billion in today’s dollars.

Further Reading

Torrington Recovers After the Flood of ’55,” connecticuthistory.org

Jim Shea, “When Rivers Raged” & “Fury Unleashed,” Hartford Courant

The Flood of ’55: Memories,” Hartford Courant

The Great Flood of 1955,” Waterbury Time Machine blog