' Skip To Content
The Hurricane of '38 | Article

Helen Joy Lee

Helen Joy Lee, daughter of the founder of the Packard Motor Car Company, summered at Watch Hill, Rhode Island for a number of years. 


Left: Lee's old house on the beach, Right: After the hurricane


On September 21, 1938, her teenage daughters went into town to shop with friends and to see a movie. That morning, Helen Lee went for a swim in the warm sea, then washed her two pets, a dog named Tucky and a little yellow kitten. 

Helen Joy Lee: About two I noticed the wind was northeast and stronger. ...Then I went back to call [my daughter] to tell her not to try to drive out the Fort Road as the wind was too strong. I got a wrong number and then the phone went dead. The lights and radio were dead, too.

Helen Joy Lee: About 3:15 the wind increased to about 45 miles per hour, and the rain came harder and steady. I realized it was quite a storm. I fastened the windows right and put towels and a pan by each one.

Helen Joy Lee: After seeing two sailboats become unmoored, she tied a towel to a clothesline as a flag in case rescue teams were looking for residents. She could not stand up in the wind.

Helen Joy Lee: I went back into the house, and found that a window had broken upstairs and water was trickling down the stairs. Then a window crashed downstairs. ...There was an inch of water on the floor. Then there was no wind at all. Having been in two hurricanes in Florida, I realized this must by the storm center ... and the wind would come again from another direction as suddenly as it stopped, and not much stronger. I thought the storm was half over.

The sea looked to her like a frothy green cake batter. By 4:00 the wind did return from another direction -- the south — but it was much stronger, about 100 mph.

Helen Joy Lee: It was all I could do to close the front door against it. Spray and sand came under the door. ...I watched sand piles built up on the floor. Debris that had gone to sea with the wind from the northeast began to come back and crash on the house. A piece of the roof went and ... [in] a few minutes I was ankle deep in the water.

Helen Joy Lee: There was nothing to do now but wait for whatever was going to come to me, and to get where I thought would be the safest place. ...I took the dog and cat into the kitchen, tied the dog to the knob inside the door, put on [a] raincoat, and put the kitten in my pocket. Then I went out on the side porch to look things over.

Helen Joy Lee: I saw our 3-car garage lifted up and dropped into the bay. I had to hold on with both hands against the force of the wind. I got soaked with each wave as it went over the house. ...My coat whipped out and the kitten was blown out of my pocket and sailed away like a miniature rug.

Her house was ripping apart and the winds were too strong for her to reenter the building.

Helen Joy Lee: I turned to Tucky [the dog] and said, "Well, it's just 4:30 and I wonder how much longer" — when something hit the house a terrific thud ... and the wave brought the back porch down on me, dislocating my left elbow. Tucky and I, in 10 seconds, found ourselves 150 feet from where we started. I was sitting as if on a toboggan and was carried over the small wall onto the road and again over the wall into the bay.

Dodging debris, she ducked under the water.

Helen Joy Lee: When I came up for air, there was the kitten on a board ten feet away crying loudly. Where it had been for twenty minutes I don't know, unless it had come down in the bay and an eddy had brought it back.

Helen Joy Lee: Tucky was southwest and next to me. I undid her leash, and the last I saw of her was five minutes later when she was fifty feet away and northeast of me, standing on some debris. If I had two arms, I might have been able to help her.

Helen Joy Lee: The wind was 100 to 120 mph and the rain and gray spray, filled with sand, came in sheets.

Taking off her raincoat, she was wearing just blue shorts and a short sleeved sweater. She tried to hold onto a pole, but her injured arm was useless. Debris continued to pelt her. When she tried to get down into the water, she found herself pinned between parts of buildings -- but managed to kick herself free.

Helen Joy Lee: All fear left me when I hit the water and had to do something to save myself. It was the half hour of total helplessness in the house that was the worst time for me.

Helen Joy Lee: I was hanging on to something in the water, and began talking to myself, thinking aloud, "Well this is really a hurricane and you are out in it. You have been washed into the bay and gotten this far O.K., so you might as well see how much farther you can get. As long as you can keep afloat, and conscious, you'll get to somewhere, and there's no use quitting now."

She tried to climb on floating debris but much of it was jagged and constantly capsizing.

Helen Joy Lee: [A] piece of house (6' x 8') came by and I crawled onto that; it was like a surf board. This was pretty exposed and as I came up the side of a wave, a board like bookcase shelf hit me across the left eye. ...(My head and face were cut and bruised so, that I could not stand to have my hair touched for four days in the hospital.)

Helen Joy Lee: A mattress came along that seemed to be moving faster than I was, so I changed steeds, pushing through all manner of wreckage. The mattress was very comfortable for my bad arm. ...I would have stayed on the mattress, but part of a boat came along faster, so I changed again. ...It offered protection from debris, too, and I lay in that.

Helen Joy Lee: Shortly after I got into the boat, I heard a different scratching, and looking, I saw I was going over some treetops. (They are twenty feet above the usual water level.). Soon my boat stopped, and debris began piling up against it.

She climbed down into a tree and dozed for about 90 minutes and woke again at 8 pm. She found solid ground below but didn't recognize any landmarks. Stuffing grass into her clothing to keep warm, she sat for a while.

Helen Joy Lee: As I sat there I thought: "I'm alive and safe, and I want the children to know I'm all right." I repeated this many times and then dozed off.

Helen Joy Lee: At intervals I made myself get up, stretch, call out -- mainly to keep warm — and slap myself.

By midnight the water was gone, leaving only mud. 

By 4 am, she recognized the breakwater lights and found a direction to walk towards. A man named Fred and his niece heard her calls and brought her inside. Neighbors stopped by to see the stranger and were all strangely silent. After one man gasped in shock, Lee asked to see a mirror.

Helen Joy Lee: My shiner was a complete black mask over both eyes, my nose was swollen and my left eye was closed, my jaw on the right side was swollen and black, and I had scratches all over.

Fred, who had been out all night clearing roads, helped her walk half a mile to a car and she was taken to the hospital. It was then 8 in the morning. Despite her position in local society, her demands for a room and doctor were not met immediately.

Helen Joy Lee: Picture a person in dirty blue shorts, a gray sweater full of holes, pieces of grass and briars still hanging to it, the black eyes, hair wild, legs the same size from above the knees down, and a mass of scratches, mud, blood, bruises and deep gashes; feet so swollen the toes looked like brass tacks stuck into upholstery, and of course, one arm inside the sweater.

Helen Joy Lee: Later [the doctor] told me (he's known me 33 years) that he didn't recognize me -- I looked so terrible.

Cleaning her off, they found more than 25 thorns in her feet. In her four days in the hospital, they tried to clean her feet with gasoline.

Helen Joy Lee: Saturday, my left eye began to open. I said to the nurse, "What is the matter with my left eyebrows — they are hanging down in my eye?"

Helen Joy Lee: She said, "That's not 'eyebrow,' that is an inch long stick of wood in the bridge of your nose. When they set your arm, they will take it out."

Support Provided by: Learn More