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New England's Great Flood of 1955

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Less than a year after the devastating 1954 hurricane season, New England was hit with another double whammy of sorts. The first tropical storm to hit New England in 1955 did not make landfall in the region, instead passing to the west. Nantucket was brushed by the center of the second tropical storm. The combined effects of these two storms resulted in the worst flood in the region's history.

A tropical storm named Connie formed to the west of the Cape Verde islands in early August. Connie moved west northwest before turning northwest and strengthening to a category four hurricane. The hurricane began to weaken as it approached the southeast United States. As a category two storm, the hurricane made landfall in North Carolina.

Connie pushed through North Carolina and Virginia on its way north. The storm had weakened to a tropical storm at this point. Connie tracked northwest, away from New England, as it moved into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Connie would eventually cross Lake Erie and enter Michigan while still classified as a tropical storm. On its way to Canada, the storm would be absorbed by a cold front.

Despite bending away from New England, rain fell on the region. This would be critical in setting up what would become a “biblical” flood when the second tropical storm passed New England. Connie dumped four to six inches of rain across Connecticut and western Massachusetts, with a high of eight inches. This soaked the ground, causing many rivers and streams to overflow.

As Connie moved up the east coast, another tropical storm formed in the same general area as Connie. Diane would be the name given to this storm. As a category one hurricane, the storm bobbed around in the ocean before turning west northwest. Diane made landfall as a powerful tropical storm in North Carolina. Diane began to bend north and northeast over Virginia as she moved inland.

The storm passed over New Jersey before re-emerging over the Atlantic Ocean as a tropical storm moving east northeast. Diane traveled parallel to the southern New England coast. The storm's core stayed south of New England, barely brushing against Nantucket. The storm then moved away from the area at a rapid pace.

When Connie passed through, the storm dumped several inches of rain, causing minor flooding. Diane moved through the area just one week later, getting much closer to New England than Connie and dropping record rainfall amounts. Over a two-day period, nearly two feet of rain fell in parts of Connecticut and western Massachusetts. Under any circumstances, this much rain is a recipe for major flooding. The fact that the same area had received several inches of rain the week before is what elevated this event from a major flood to one of Connecticut's worst natural disasters in history.

While the floods affected all of southern New England, Connecticut was by far the hardest hit. As the Connecticut and Naugatuck rivers swept away bridge after bridge, the floods effectively split the state in half. The Connecticut River reached 30.6 feet at Hartford, which is more than 14 feet above flood stage. This was the third highest level ever recorded in Hartford. At the time, the Connecticut River had flood control measures in place, so the main sources of destruction came from other, smaller rivers throughout the state that did not have such measures.

The Quinebaug, Farmington, Naugatuck, Housatonic, and Pomperaug rivers set all time records. Putnam was nearly destroyed by the Quinebaug River. The flood added insult to injury because it occurred at the same time a major fire broke out in a plant. The city declared martial law. Putnam witnessed some of the most vicious devastation. A city official at the time said it would take ten years to restore the city to its pre-flood condition.

Almost every bridge along the Naugatuck River was destroyed. Across the state, towns and cities along river banks were devastated, with some communities completely destroyed. Thirty people were killed in Waterbury, Connecticut, along the Naugatuck River, including twenty-six on one block alone. Several houses and buildings were swept into the river, and the buildings were completely destroyed when they collided with a bridge. The Free Lance-Star reported:

“...A Waterbury, Conn., man surveyed that city of 104,000 and said: ‘It’s utter destruction. It’ll be weeks before they can get machinery in to push the debris out.”

Winstead was also among the hardest hit communities The Mad River caused flooding as the river reached ten feet. As many as 95% of businesses were reported to be damaged or destroyed. Much of Winstead was destroyed, with Main Street at the epicenter of the devastation. The Free Lance-Star reported:

“A resident of Winstead, Conn., where the main street was a jumble of torn and uprooted paving said: ‘It looked like a bulldozer with a mammoth blade had started in the west end of the city and headed right down the 1 ½ miles of main street. We all cried.”

Connecticut flood of 1955 in Winstead
Winstead, Connecticut after the flood

The highest total of rainfall in Connecticut between Connie and Diane was a whopping 25 inches in Barkhamsted. Some neighbors in that town started a “patrol” during Diane and went door to door telling people to get out before the area got swept away. Diane dropped a total of 15.95 inches.

Burlington, Connecticut received another two-foot total. In that town, US marines launched a rescue mission by lowering a rope from a helicopter to hoist survivors standing on the roof of the Burlington Inn. The roof was barely above the floodwaters.

Other notable combined rainfall totals in the area included 21.81 inches in Norfolk, 18.60 inches in Warren, and 18.42 inches in Windsor Locks. Following the floods, a total of 77 people were revealed to have died in Connecticut. Damage totaled more than $350 million across the state. A total of 668 homes were destroyed, with another 7,500 or so damaged. Almost 3,000 businesses, factories, and farms were destroyed or damaged.

Massive rains and flooding also hit Massachusetts. Westfield, Massachusetts received the most rain from just Diane, with 19.75 inches falling. This is the most rain to fall in a single storm in New England history. A total of two dozen stream gauges in the state experienced record flooding.

A Boston and Albany train derailed over a washed-out section of track along the Westfield River. Because of the flooding, Westfield was split into three sections. Twenty-two people were rescued by helicopter in Westfield. 76 businesses and homes were condemned in total.

The Great Brook in Southwick stretched to a hundred feet wide. The Charles and Westfield rivers experienced historic flooding. A flooded brook also caused significant damage to a section of the Massachusetts turnpike. In total, nearly 100 houses were destroyed across the state. Damage in Massachusetts totaled more than $100 million. In the state, twelve people were killed.

New England flooding in 1955

One of the most serious issues with Diane's arrival was inaccurate forecasting of the storm's rains. This is most likely the primary reason that so many people died, were injured, or required rescue. All hurricane and storm warnings (from Georgia to New Jersey) were lifted shortly after Diane moved inland.

After Diane began to weaken after moving inland, forecasters determined that the storm would not have a major impact after starting to fall apart over Virginia. The Weather Service simply predicted that "some local flooding." was possible. As public outrage over the forecast grew, the Weather Bureau was forced to respond. The Eugene Register-Guard ran a headline that read:

“Hurricane Experts Hold Differing Views; All Face Storm of Criticism From Public.”

The Bureau admitted they "goofed" with the forecast, saying they did not anticipate the amount of rain that would fall due to their lack of experience with extreme rain events. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported via the Associated Press:

“The Weather Bureau said today current scientific knowledge of forecasting----and available facilities----just weren’t adequate to provide sufficient warning for the great northeast flood disaster…Edward Vernon, chief of weather synopsis and forecast, said, ‘we’ve got a lot of work to do’ in improving forecasts dealing with erratic extremes of nature. He added that rainfall in some cases was two times above longstanding records and ‘we’ve had little or no experience with this sort of thing before.’”

New England flood of 1955, Connecticut

One of the most pressing concerns after Diane passed was a lack of safe drinking water. Many areas were left without adequate water, raising serious concerns about the spread of waterborne illnesses. Typhoid Fever vaccines were quickly distributed by the government. A boil-water advisory was issued for Massachusetts. Americans were quick to donate to the American Red Cross relief efforts, raising $10 million.

The great flood drew international attention, with Red Cross organizations in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Canada, France, Australia, and Venezuela offering aid and emergency supplies. The federal government declared disaster areas in eight states, including three in New England.

Over 200 dams in New England were damaged or destroyed in the end. Although the National Flood Insurance Act was not enacted until 1968, the federal flood insurance program was proposed in Congress in direct response to this disaster. The Army Corps of Engineers were called in to build dams to prevent future flooding. In Connecticut, 29 new dams were built specifically to prevent flooding. The Thomaston dam on the Naugatuck River is one of the Corps's largest flood-control dams ever built.

Massachusetts invested significantly in flood control by enlarging culverts and expanding drainage systems. River monitoring was expanded to smaller rivers, and zoning laws were even changed to avoid the property loss experienced during this flood.

As for forecasting, improvements were already underway before these storms hit. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported vis the Associated Press:

“...officials reported steps were underway even before the floods struck which will lead to ‘great improvements’ in the future. ‘If all this happened two years hence, the savings in property and life would have been tremendous.’”

On July 1, 1956, the National Hurricane Information Center, later renamed the National Hurricane Center, was established in Miami to store all hurricane-related information from the Weather Bureau. The St. Petersburg Times reported in 1960, looking back:

“‘The US Weather Bureau is going to do something about hurricanes this year.’ …People were mad. In 1954, three major storms, Carol, Edna and Hazel, had caused about 750 million dollars property damage, untold human misery along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1955, Connie and Diane followed the same path and caused more than a billion dollars in property damage. People wanted to know why a nation that prides itself on its scientific achievements should have to submit to such blows.”

In 1956, the government set aside $500,000 to establish the hurricane information center. The national hurricane research project was also established in the 1950s to improve storm forecasting so that residents could save themselves and their property.

Diane became the first Atlantic hurricane to cause one billion dollars in damage when all was said and done. Diane's name was retired from the naming list. This was one of New England's darkest disasters.



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