The Long Island Express
With this years’ Atlantic hurricane season well underway, it seemed fitting to discuss the storm that touched so many lives and reshaped our beaches; not only on the South Shore but also stretching far to the North.
Rain had fallen consistently for the last week, saturating the ground and the temperature was considerably cooler than what was typical for that time of the year. Just a slight breeze could be felt whispering through the trees. It was Wednesday, the twenty-first day of September and the sleepy children of Long Island were ushered off to school like any other day. Some parents stayed in the home tending to domestic chores or farmwork and other families were on the barrier islands closing up their summer homes for the season, or getting in one last week of relaxation before the chill of winter took residence.
Many parents left for work, some of the men finding their fishing and clam boats long before the rest of the family woke for the day. A few captains noted the weather and their barometers; they figured a half day’s worth of work would have to suffice. The weather reports had called for a Nor’easter, maybe gale winds at the worst, the major storm they had heard about was moving out to sea, so only the milder disturbance was expected. Fishing should have been decent; it was the Autumnal Equinox, astronomical high and low tides.
My Grandmother was one of those children being ushered off to her little one room schoolhouse in Quogue. A seemingly uneventful day to her and everyone else on the Island took a turn for the unexpected worse.
Weather reports indicated a major storm moving up the Eastern Seaboard. All predictions had calculated the beast of a storm to move to the northeast and then further eastward out to sea before ever reaching New England. A near miss, but nothing most meteorologists worried about, except for a junior forecaster at the U.S. Weather Bureau, Charlie Pierce.
He felt that the storm was not going to follow the estimated easterly path but take a direction due north after hitting Hatteras, North Carolina. Despite his plea to issue a hurricane warning for New England, Pierce was overruled by the chief forecaster and not another word was uttered. No one living on the island could have known that a major Category 3 hurricane was barreling toward them at more than 60 miles per hour. The word hurricane was foreign to most New Englander’s and had only been used once before. It was just a typical autumn Nor’easter and not one soul was the wiser.
In the afternoon on that fateful September day, a 500 mile wide hurricane landed a direct hit on our beloved Island’s south shore. At the time it was unnamed, but today it is well known as the Long Island Express.
This was before The Weather Channel, weather radars and buoys, before NASA and its satellite imaging. There was the telephone, the radio and newspapers. A newspaper did run a story about the menacing storm, but it fell some twenty pages in, a small article, just a blip. People at that time were more concerned about Europe and the rising threat of war. Many folks were also still feeling the pain from unemployment and the stock market. There were bigger things to digest than a seasonal thunderstorm.
Various stories tell of harrowing experiences such as John O’Keefe of Fire Island, who recalled, in an attempt to be rescued at the dock, how the seas bellowed from behind and the planks on the boardwalk being rocketed upwards as he could barely keep ahead. Mrs. Donald Hopkins told how she escaped with her three children in a very similar scenario.
One survivor told of how the wind had blown the water in the bay so hard into the mainland, that in-between the waves crashing from the ocean behind he could see the bottom of the Bay. (It should be noted that waves were estimated to be between thirty and fifty feet.)
Some of the residents of Saltaire didn’t hear about the plan to evacuate. A maid, after being swept out to the bay, jumped from rooftop to rooftop struggling, until she came upon a structure resisting the force of nature and hunkered down until she was discovered by a rescuer later that evening. People everywhere were being swept unaware by this maelstrom from the deep. Some desperately reaching for floating pieces of debris the size of cars, others tried to swim the bay, and still others managed to get to the few boats offering some sliver of safety.
There is one story of three women playing cards on the second floor of their oceanfront house when without warning, the roar of the storm was inside the room and an enormous wave swept them all outside leaving them clinging for life. Only one survived and such was the tragic ending for many Long Islanders that day. (As of this revision, it is estimated that the hurricane claimed the lives of 600-800 people in all of New England.)
Main Street in West Hampton Beach, which was about one mile inland from the bay, found itself under eight feet of water and sorely battered by the relentless winds. Many residents can recall seeing the water up to the second floor of the movie theater. My Grandmother remembered being picked up by her neighbor Flo, and driven home from school. She spoke of how water just kept leaking into the car and they thought they would never survive. My Great-Grandmother and Grandmother took shelter at a neighbors house and watched in horror as the garage was blown into miniscule pieces of debris.
Sag Harbor, another beautiful East End town, witnessed its 125 foot steeple on top of the Old Whalers Church tumble like a stack of children’s wooden blocks, its absence is still noticed today.
Montauk received a tremedous amount of damage. Tom Joyce a fisherman from Nova Scotia found himself and his small cottage being picked up by a wave and swept down the beach landing in Duryeas Pond. The Point was also temporarily turned into an island as water invaded through Napeague leaving Montauk residents stranded. Many tried to flee the storm by rail but when the conductor realized the tracks had been obliterated, the train moved in reverse and its passengers were forced to seek shelter at Montauk Manor.
The Cedar Point lighthouse endured a different result. Cedar Point Island sat about 200 yards from the mainland, during the storm, tons of sand shifted and in the end it was an island no more. The lighthouse was connected to what is now Cedar Point County Park and completely accessable by foot. Long Island was torn and battered and so were her people, though an end was in sight, only because the storm had moved so quickly… it had arrived and left in a span of five or so hours.
The devastation was insurmountable; but still somehow the hard working people of this proud island fought their way back and survived. There is story upon story of heroic behavior and no doubt many lives were spared on account of dozens of Captains and ordinary people risking their own lives to save countless others.
The Hurricane of 1938 re-shaped our beaches and continues to do so today. At least 10 new inlets were formed and while most closed naturally on their own, within a year, two remained. Moriches Inlet, which was formed by a Nor’easter a few years earlier, was widened and Shinnecock Inlet was formed. Pressure to stabilize the inlets for profitable navigation and to improve water quality grew and this was indeed done. As a result of the introduction of these two inlets, the natural flow of sand from the east to the west was permanently disrupted.
This caused incredible erosion problems for all beaches west of these inlets including Fire Island National Seashore. In the past, attempts made to fix the erosion problem have been botched by politics on all levels of government. It remains a problem to this day. Even though it caused such destruction, the storm did pull Long Island out of the grips of unemployment caused by the Great Depression, thousands of men and women were put to work wherever they were needed.
The Long Island Express had peak sustained winds of 120 mph and a peak gust of 186 mph. The wave heights reached 50 feet and salt spray was observed on buildings as far as three miles inland. The peak storm surge is reported as being 17 feet above normal high tide. Now remember, Long Island was experiencing the Autumnal Equinox causing astronomical high and low tides.
As mentioned above there were an estimated 700 deaths in New England, about 2 billion trees destroyed and 63,000 people left homeless. The waves were so powerful; they were recorded on seismographs at Fordham University in New York City. Some reports have indicated seismographs as far away as Alaska getting a read on this violent assault, though I have been unable to confirm this. Winds at the top of the Empire State Building were recorded at around 120 mph. Steel and concrete bolted RCA towers, that stood around 300 feet high, were discovered twisted into metallic bird nests of sorts. On average, the wind leveled one out of every three buildings on the South Shore of Long Island.
Why is it important to remember this horrific storm? The simple answer is so that we may learn from our mistakes. Being equipped with the technology and having an understanding of hurricanes today will only help if the people who are in harms way, heed the warnings.
I am always astonished, (even most recently as Sandy) that even today many Long Island residents have become complacent. They simply do not think it could happen again. Many tropical weather experts agree that we have entered a period of greater hurricane frequency, and while the percentage is low, with the boom in population and of beachfront homes and businesses on the South Shore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a major hurricane to inflict terrible damage. With memories of Sandy fresh in our minds, as well as Katrina and Andrew and the ghost stories of the 1938 storm, we should all be vigilant during the active season by educating ourselves and our famlies.
Keep in mind, it is better to flee and return safely than be tied to tracks should another Long Island Express roll through.