Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri speaks at the High Water Mark event at the Providence Biltmore Hotel, directly under the actual high water mark from the 1938 hurricane, as depicted by the High Water Mark ribbon.

Case Studies

Commemorating 70th Anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938

Encouraging enhanced preparation for hurricanes by the citizens of Rhode Island who hadn’t experienced a major hurricane in over 54 years was a major challenge for elected leaders and emergency management officials. A related challenge was promoting greater participation in the federally-backed National Flood Insurance Program.

DSS principals understood just how difficult it would be to convince Rhode Islanders to prepare for hurricanes since a majority of the state’s population had never experienced a major hurricane. In coastal Rhode Island, where the vulnerability to coastal storm surge proved deadly in previous hurricanes, this lack of preparation was of great concern to disaster safety officials and representatives of the National Flood Insurance Program.

With the 70th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938 approaching, DSS principals realized that the anniversary could become a powerful teaching tool. A comprehensive public awareness campaign was developed that included an educational website and the development of an educational brochure to help the citizens of Rhode Island understand how to prepare for a major hurricane. The Get Hurricane Ready Rhode Island campaign was launched in July 2008 with a major press conference featuring the Governor of Rhode Island, the Director of the National Hurricane Center, and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Many Rhode Island retailers, including CVS Pharmacy, agreed to distribute the free Hurricane Education Guide at store locations. The gubernatorial press conference was scheduled to coincide with a Hurricane Risk Mitigation Leadership Forum in Newport, Rhode Island, sponsored by another agency client, Renaissance Reinsurance.

For the actual 70th anniversary of the 1938 hurricane (September 21, 2008), the agency developed an event to underscore the hurricane’s deadly storm surge. Special High Water Mark ribbons were placed at the actual high water marks on street signs and telephone poles in the hardest hit communities. Given the height of the storm surge, which exceeded 14 feet in some locations, the High Water Mark ribbons helped present-day residents visualize the unthinkable: storm surge rising so high that one-story buildings could be nearly engulfed.

To help give the High Water Mark event the greatest possible visibility, DSS principals again recruited the Governor of Rhode Island to help launch the event, which was held in the lobby of Providence’s Biltmore Hotel, site of some of the 1938 Hurricane’s worst flooding. Joining Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri were emergency management leaders, event sponsors and the local media. As the ceremony took place, public works crews in outlying Rhode Island coastal communities tied High Water Mark ribbons to telephone poles in their hardest hit areas, demonstrating in visually graphic ways just how vulnerable the state is to coastal storm surge.

The High Water Mark designations were featured in extensive TV, print and radio coverage.