Catastrophe: 73 Years Ago the Hurricane of ’38 Flattened the Hamptons

A car smashed by a tree, in Ulmer Park
A car smashed by a tree, in Ulmer Park

On the morning of September 21, 1938, the telephone rang at the home of Trevor J. Davis, on Dune Road, Westhampton Beach.

“Hello, Mr. Davis?”

“Yes, this is he,” Davis replied, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“Mr. Davis, this is the post office. We have a C.O.D. package for you. It’s 11 dollars and 55 cents.”

“Is it from Chicago?”

“Yes. Sears Roebuck, in Chicago. It’s about a foot square.”

“Oh, well that’s my new barometer. I’ll be down to pick it up after breakfast.”

“We’ll be open all day. Goodbye, Mr. Davis.”

“Goodbye.” [expand]

Trevor thought for a minute how nice it was that old Mr. Baker would take the trouble to call him that a package had arrived C.O.D. But then he remembered that he had told Mr. Baker he was getting a barometer, and Mr. Baker said he’d be interested in seeing it. Trevor decided he’d probably open the package right there at the post office and they’d have a look at it together. No reason why not.

Trevor changed from his silk bathrobe into his summer whites, and went downstairs to the kitchen. He was alone, having left his servants in the city with his wife and children, and he was roughing it. Camping out in his summer home.

For company, as he was making breakfast, he turned on the radio and tuned in the New York station he always favored.

...Came down the way in what was surely the most thrilling launch of all time. Eighty-nine thousand tons, nearly 900-feet long, the beautiful new Queen Elizabeth struck the water with a splendor and a grace that few thought possible. Nearly 20,000 people attended the launching, including the King, and American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. The Queen Elizabeth is at present steaming from her launching site on the Clyde to the Thames River and London Harbor where an even greater welcome is planned. Meanwhile, across the Channel, there has been an amusing edict from the Reichstag in Berlin. In the future, according to the Nazi announcement, all persons wishing to greet the Fuhrer must refrain from throwing flowers. The Fuhrer’s cheek was scratched, according to the announcement, by the thorn from a wayward bouquet of roses as he was

It was nearly noon when Trevor pulled his Packard up to the post office on Main Street. A light breeze had sprung up and he noticed that the sky was getting quite dark. There was also an almost sticky warmth to the air. Setting his brake, Trevor hopped down to the street and walked around the car into the post office and up to the counter.

“Here ‘tis,” Mr. Baker said, setting the package out almost before the bell had stopped jangling on the door. “Got here in just five days. Pretty good time from Chicago, if you ask me.”

Trevor gave Mr. Baker a 10 and a five, and Mr. Baker gave him back the change.

“I think I’ll open it and have a look,” Trevor said, with just the trace of a smile. “Certainly wouldn’t want it if it were defective.”

“Certainly not,” Mr. Baker said, leaving off everything he was doing and giving the package his full attention.

“Now, you were asking me how one of these things works,” Trevor said as he undid the string. “Well, what the barometer does is measure the pressure in the air. Generally speaking, when the pressure is high, the weather is good, and when it is low, the weather is not good.”

“What’s the pressure on an average day?”

“Oh, about 30. I’ve seen it rise as high as 31, and do you remember that storm we had last year? The pressure dropped to almost 29. Or so they said over the radio.”

Trevor undid the last of the wrapping and took out the barometer. It was in a beautiful mahogany case and had a shiny glass frontispiece through which you could see the dial of the instrument

It read 28.3.

“This is strange,” Trevor said, looking at the peculiar reading. “Maybe it is stuck.”

He tapped it a couple of times with the palm of his hand. But the dial stayed resolutely where itwas.

“What’s the matter?” Mr. Baker asked.

“Well, this barometer reads 28.3. And there’s no possible way it could read that low. There must be something wrong with it.”

Mr. Baker began picking up the wrapping and the box, which it came in. He was trying to be helpful but he had no idea what he was looking for. He just shuffled things around.

“Maybe there’s a piece missing?” he said.

“No, it’s all of a piece. I think we just got a bum barometer. It’s not like Sears and Roebuck, but I guess it happens to the best of us.”

“You want to send it back? You can, you know. You don’t have to accept a package C.O.D.”

“Well, I guess that would be the best thing to do. Sure is a shame, though.”

Trevor and Mr. Baker got everything together and silently began repacking the package. Before they sealed it, Trevor got a paper and a pencil and wrote out a note: INSTRUMENT DEFECTIVE, PLEASE SEND ANOTHER, and put it in the box. Then they closed it up, sealed it, and Mr. Baker returned Trevor’s money. It was as if it never happened.

“You coming out the next few weeks?” Mr. Baker asked.

“I expect so.”

“Well, I’ll call you again when the next one arrives. You could figure two weeks or three.”

“We’ll be coming out right through the end of October.”

“I’ll call you.”

Trevor picked up the rest of his mail, which consisted of a single bill from the Westhampton Liquor Store, and opened the door to walk out to his car. It was quite windy now, and a light, warm rain was falling nearly sideways, rustling the leaves in the trees. Trevor put his hand on the brim of his tennis hat, ducked his head into his shoulders and ran the 20 feet to his car, laughing. This was a rough kind of weather that he liked. Weather that came down from the heavens, that let you know it was there. It was, in fact, the reason he’d purchased the summerhouse on the beach 10 years before, and the reason he’d purchased the barometer.

Trevor started the engine to his car and drove down Main Street. Twigs and small branches were flying across the road, and a few merchants could be seen rolling up their awnings. Turning left on Stephen’s Lane, Trevor was surprised to see that a good-sized tree had fallen down on someone’s lawn. There was also a deck chair blowing across the road in front of him. Trevor slowed down to let the deck chair pass, and rolled up his window to stop the wind from whistling. He turned left again onto Jessup Street. The wind was stronger and the Packard was rocking from side to side.

And then Trevor looked up and could hardly believe his eyes. The water in the bay had risen. It was so high, in fact, that it was washing across the Jessup’s Neck Bridge in front of him. He would be unable to cross the bridge to get to Dune Road beyond. Trevor stopped his car and stared. His jaw dropped. Across the bridge, on Dune Road, where there had been a good two-dozen houses when he’d left, including his own, there was nothing. Trevor rubbed his eyes. There was no fog. He could see the sight crystal clear. A few roofs, a door, a window jutting up here and there. The sea had inundated Dune Road. It had met the bay. There was nothing for him to drive home to.

Trevor Davis, still in his tennis whites, turned the Packard around and drove it quickly through the mounting storm to the Howell House Hotel. It was the strongest structure he could think of. And it was already filling with refugees.

*        *        *

It is impossible today, looking back at the incredible catastrophe that was the Hurricane of ‘38, to imagine how unprepared the eastern end of Long Island really was. But it was the case. As a natural catastrophe, larger than any that had ever struck the world in a decade, the hurricane built in its ferocious intensity in the North Atlantic and the people of the East End woke on the morning of Wednesday, September 21, 1938, as if it were just another day. In Montauk, the 26 fishing families that lived in the picturesque cottages on the arc of Fort Pond Bay awakened to a peaceful day. As there had been a possible storm predicted the night before, a storm which apparently was not going to materialize, the fishermen as a group chose not to go out, but instead, to spend the day mending their nets and enjoying their families. By nine o’clock in the morning, the smell of coffee pervaded the air, wafting down the single dirt road of the village, past the schoolhouse, the post office and the Union News Restaurant building to the small fleet tied to the docks.

In the Hamptons, time, then as it is now, was measured in seasons. This was the third week after Labor Day, and, although there were fewer visitors out here than there had been the week before, there was still a goodly number of summer people. Most had driven out from the city the night before—a four-hour drive at night, down the Montauk Highway to their summerhouses—and most had come with their servants to get on with the bittersweet occupation of folding and packing and closing down for the winter. In the Hamptons, this was the heyday of the “cottages.” There were nearly 1,000 of these magnificent summer homes lining the beach from Amagansett to Dune Road, Westhampton Beach, each with 20 or 30 rooms, and each habitable only 15 or 20 weeks of the year, due to a complete absence of any heating system. The economy of the Hamptons had, in fact, been built on the popularity of the cottages, occupied as they were by the cream of New York society, with their attendant lawn parties, servants, clubs, shops and stables. And so, as that fateful day dawned, few persons imagined that the day would be anything else than expected—a day to buy some furniture covers, go out to the beach, if the weather was willing, perhaps take the kids to the matinee at the Edwards Theatre in East Hampton.

Up on the North Fork, the day also began as any other. In Southold, the farmers were busy getting the potatoes out of the ground. At Greenport, dozens of tourists “just happened” to walk down the pier to get a look at the magnificent Vanderbilt yacht tied up there. The boat was on cruise and the Vanderbilts were in residence. There was a beautiful wind indicator mounted on a porthole which could measure winds up to 150 miles per hour. Out at Orient, at 8:30 that morning, the first load of cars made their way aboard the ferry for the cross-sound trip to New London.

Perhaps the single most unusual event that peaceful morning was the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Phineas J. Clipp at their summerhome in Georgica, East Hampton. Mr. and Mrs. Clipp pulled up that morning in their dusty, chauffeur-driven Lincoln, and what was unusual about their arrival was that they had left East Hampton for their winter home in Palm Beach two weeks earlier. Workmen were scheduled to board up the East Hampton home for the winter in just a week or two.

Mr. Clipp stepped out of the car and stretched his arms as far as they would go, smoothing the wrinkles in his blue blazer. He walked around to the other side of the car and let his wife out. It was good to be back in East Hampton. The leaves were still on the trees, and, except for the pervading sense of peace and quiet, it might as well have been summer.

The black chauffeur stepped out of the car, and he stretched too. It had been an exhausting drive. They had left Palm Beach—they told their friends there that something had come up unexpectedly—and they had driven for five straight days, spending nearly 12 hours each day cooped up inside the Lincoln, to get back to their summer place in Georgica.

The chauffeur walked around to the trunk and began to unload the bags. There had not been very much packed really. Just enough to last for 10 days, by which time the hurricane, which was expected to strike the coast of Florida would have passed and it would be safe to drive back to Palm


*        *        *

The Hurricane of 1938 had begun to form in the Atlantic about 500 miles off the coast of Miami. It swirled in the classic counterclockwise pattern, and according to the telegraph message from a steamship, which had inadvertently ventured into the storm, the winds were blowing at about 80 miles an hour and rising. The steamship pulled clear of the storm and the Miami weather bureau issued a marine alert to all ships at sea, fixing the longitude and latitude of the storm, and urging all vessels to stay away from the area, or not to venture out at all, if possible.

Nothing was heard further about the storm for three days. But then, a second telegraphed message came in, this time from a Panamanian freighter, which encountered the storm 170 miles from the coast of Miami. The Panamanians had swung to the west of the storm, and by steaming at a full 15 knots, had slowly been able to get away from it. They estimated the hurricane was traveling due west, straight for the coast of Miami, at a speed of 12 miles an hour.

The weather bureau wasted little time. STAND BY FOR POSSIBLE HURRICANE WARNINGS was the order for the day, on Friday, September 16. The newspapers carried the warning front page, together with an interview of a weather bureau official, who said the city might be getting as much notice as a full week, but there was really no way of telling.

Miami had had its share of hurricanes. It experienced a devastating storm, without warning, in 1926, and another storm, with warning, in 1936. The city immediately began making preparations, boarding up windows, tying everything down, bringing everything possible to high ground.

Two days passed. STAND BY FOR POSSIBLE HURRICANE WARNINGS DURING THE DAY, the weather bureau repeated on Sunday. On Monday, the proclamation was this: HURRICANE WARNINGS WILL PROBABLY BE ISSUED TONIGHT. But none came. The skies were clear. The hours passed. There was not a trace of the storm.

At eight a.m. on September 21, the weather observatory at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, recorded winds of 56 miles an hour. The speed of the winds was high, but not unusual, and nothing peculiar was thought of it. Within two hours the winds had subsided.

We know today, from piecing together the fragments of information available, that the Hurricane of 1938 had grown into a monster in both speed and size. From its rather normal beginnings off the coast of Miami, the hurricane had swung to the north, and began to pick up speed in a manner unknown either before or since. Most hurricanes travel at a predictable pace of between 10 and 13 miles an hour. Even in the 1930s, when weather prediction was in a relatively primitive stage, it had been known that this was the case. But this particular hurricane, its winds increasing in intensity to 100, then 120, then 140 miles an hour, began to increase its forward motion, until, when it passed off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, it was moving at a speed of nearly 40 miles an hour—about as fast as a good freight train—and it was quickening.

No one knew it at the time, but the cause of this phenomenon was a peculiar, and in itself unique, high-pressure zone, which stretched like a broad curtain on a north-south axis up the North Atlantic Ocean, ending only in the cold air patterns of Canada. The hurricane had started on a more traditional westerly direction—toward the Miami coast—and then it had suddenly locked into this high-pressure curtain shifting its direction to the north and northeast. Up the coast it came, feeding on the high-pressure curtain, growing on it, devouring it. Up it came, as if it were sucked up a gigantic vacuum tube, until the storm had developed a violence never before experienced along the Atlantic Coast. The storm covered the 1,000 miles between Cape Hatteras and eastern Long Island in just over 11 hours—the eye passed over Westhampton Beach—traveling at the incredible speed of 90 miles an hour with winds of perhaps 160 miles an hour. It slammed into the coast here at a little after four o’clock in the afternoon, and due to its great speed, had passed in less than 120 minutes. Furthermore, by an unbelievable coincidence, the storm slammed into the land almost precisely at high tide—a fact which worsened things a dozen-fold. The attendant tidal wave had the benefit of nearly 20 feet of additional high water. And it was a two-story, building-shattering wall of sea that literally swept parts of eastern Long Island clear, and cost the lives of nearly 800 people in the Northeast.

Yet, from the moment the storm was last seen, off the coast of Miami on Friday morning, except for the brief notation at Cape Hatteras, nobody at the weather bureau or anywhere else had any idea where the Hurricane of 1938 actually was, such was its speed. On Tuesday at noon, the residents of Miami were reading in their newspapers that the storm had very likely blown out to sea. Yet just 24 hours later, the residents of West Dover, New Hampshire, were picking up sheets of paper in the village square which turned out to be the court records from the Town of Southampton, thrown two states to the north by the violence of the storm to waft down on that peaceful village in southern New Hampshire.

The weather bureau never forgot the Hurricane of 1938. The storm caused a revolution in weather-tracking methods, and the introduction of both weather ships and weather aircraft never used before. The bureau has never lost a storm since.

*        *        *

It was at about 2:30 in the afternoon of that Wednesday that the residents of Montauk knew a catastrophe was building. The winds were howling at over 50 miles an hour, and the sky was getting darker by the minute. Out at the little fishing village on Fort Pond Bay, the normally peaceful waters of the Bay had risen to a frenzy. The boats rocked angrily at their docks and masts and spars cracked as they banged and splintered against one another. More alarmingly, the level of the bay had risen to a height never before seen in memory. Ten feet over the high water mark, the waves crashed at the top of the beach and with two more hours to high tide, it was apparent that the little village would shortly be inundated by the sea. Men raced around desperately trying to tie things down. The womenfolk, at the insistence of their men, had run with their children to the railroad station some 100 yards further on high ground and, after brief discussion with the stationmaster, boarded the heavy steel passenger cars of the Long Island Railroad at rest in the switchyard.

THE WEATHER BUREAU IS ISSUING SEVERE GALE AND HIGH TIDE WARNINGS FOR EASTERN LONG ISLAND was the last message received over the radio in Montauk before all the power went out.

Then the sea came over the beach. In the unearthly whine of the 100-mile-an-hour fury, there was no sound of buildings moving from their foundations, of fishing boats crashing into schoolhouses. Viewed from the windows of the railroad cars, the whole scene, the destruction of the village of Montauk, had an almost slow motion quality about it, as if a silent film were being run at half speed, slowly, deliberately, but with a certainty that no power on earth could stop.

The menfolk of the village arrived at the railroad cars and clambered aboard. There was nothing further they could do. And what was, hours before, a peaceful and picturesque village of several hundred people was now packed in wonder, inside six cars of the Long Island Railroad, witnesses to the greatest local catastrophe of our times.

In East Hampton, at about three o’clock, the arms began to blow off the windmills, taking off like paper airplanes high into the sky. Some of these arms were found over 40 miles away, others were never recovered.

Along Main Street, the great elm trees, the pride and glory of the town, swayed in the wind and then began to fall. The last of the children from the Edwards Theater, ushered out the front door when the power failed, crossed Main Street just 20 minutes before the stately old giants began to go. One fell in front of the Baker and Lester Hardware Store, smashing in the roof of a sedan. Another fell in front of the Gardiner House, pulling down the power lines with it and setting off a series of sparks and flashes. Only two days before the Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton had met to consider the care of these elm trees for the coming year. Receipts from the annual Village Fair had been less than the year before and the women had to consider how to make do with fewer funds. Now the trees were going. Crashing in that strange silence one after another. Before the day would end, a total of 139 of the elms, by actual count, fell across Main Street and Woods Lane to the west. The storm increased in intensity. The wind indicator aboard the Vanderbilt yacht, rocking violently at its berth in Greenport, registered 140 miles an hour, then 150, then burst in an agony of tiny springs and gears.

It was four o’clock. The eye of the storm, racing irrevocably up the North Atlantic high-pressure tunnel, came closer and closer to the shore of the East End. And then it was high tide, a moment in time, dictated by a disinterested moon, and the ocean came over the land, inflicting the greatest damage of all.

From Montauk to Fire Island, the big summer “cottages,” built along the top of the dunes, began to fall apart into sections. Some just burst into tinder, following the force of the sea, so much driftwood, toward the centers of the tiny villages inland. Amagansett was visited by window frames, shutters and storm windows. Southampton Village saw bits of front steps, garage doors and light fixtures. Westhampton Village, inundated with over six feet of seawater downtown, hosted, among other things, a complete bathroom, including curtains, toilet paper in place, and even a rug on the floor. All of this debris seemed to stop when it reached the downtowns, three to six miles inland, for this was as far as the force of the tidal waves would carry it.

Other homes along the beach, simply lifted off their foundations and floated, some of them whole, others in sections, like giant life rafts, carrying bankers and stockbrokers, maids and chauffeurs, swirling in the violence of the sea, to the safety of such landing sites as golf courses, well inland.

The section of Dune Road from Quogue to Moriches took the worst of it. At 4:15, the howling wind, moving at an incalculable speed, sent the sea roaring across the dunes a full three floors high. Virtually everything went before this onslaught. And what had been a thriving summer community of 179 “cottages” along the beach, came suddenly and violently to an end.

It was the height of the storm. The spire on the magnificent Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor, built nearly 100 years earlier by the whaling men to a height of 19 stories, the highest structure on the East End, fell with a silent, slow motion quality into the burying ground next to it. In Amagansett, the Amagansett Presbyterian spire went down. The Amagansett Bathing Pavilion was swept away, and to the east of town, the Barbour Restaurant and Surf Club in the fledgling development of Beach Hampton, disappeared without a trace. The Metro Theater in Greenport collapsed, and the fashionable St. Andrew’s Dune Church in Southampton fell into ruins.

Out in Long Island Sound, the New London Ferry found itself stranded. The docks at both Orient and New London had been swept away, and the captain, Sherman, of this ship, the “Catskill,” learned over the radio that there was no safe place to go. With eight passengers and 10 autos on board, he headed full steam ahead through the whitecaps for New Haven. In a city of that size, SOMETHING must be available for docking.

Literally dozens of people hung tightly to their roofs and were blown off Dune Road, across Mecox Bay and into Westhampton Beach or Quogue. Miss Mary Broadnax, 40, the maid at the summer home of Everett Tutchings of Manhattan, was the sole resident in the Tutchings “Cottage” on Dune Road. She was there packing the family’s things, when the house came apart at the seams. She climbed up the chimney hole and held onto the roof when the roof came off. Driven across Mecox Bay, she leaped to another roof that happened by when her roof broke up and sank, then, after getting in a bathtub, which seemed safer, but wasn’t, she got on still another roof when the bathtub sank and finally came ashore in a tree, where she was later rescued.

At 4:15 p.m., at the height of the storm, the seismograph at Fordham University in Manhattan recorded earth tremors emanating from eastern Long Island. A technician observing the data, indicated that an earthquake was taking place somewhere near Westhampton. But in fact, it was later found that the instrument was just picking up the earth’s shock, the incredible reaction to surf breaking on a beach.

*        *        *

By 5:30 it was all over. The hurricane had roared through, its tremendous forward speed shortening its duration. The storm weakened with its violent impact with the earth at Eastern Long Island, crossed Long Island Sound, started fires in New London, flooded the Connecticut River and dissipated itself in the mountains of New Hampshire and southern Quebec.

The winds at the East End, quickly losing their punch, reduced to gale force, and then just to occasional gusts, as the atmosphere in the wake of the storm attempted to adjust to the wrenching reality that had just passed. There were occasional patches of sunlight. A warm rain, almost hot, like a tropical shower, bathed the area like water on a wound, and the people emerged from their homes, slowly and cautiously, to see what they could make of what had recently been their lives.

*        *        *

One of the first edicts, at the conclusion of the storm, was issued by the Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton. It read: Do not uproot stumps. A stump may bud out in the spring and look better than you dream possible.

Preserve your picket fences. Next to trees, our picket fences have given East Hampton an air of distinction. Do not throw them in the woodpile.

Contact the Ladies Village Improvement Society (Mrs. Sterling Fitzer)
if you know where any elm trees are
available in this locality. Trees from
away are not wanted, as Eastern Long
Island is free from Dutch Elm Disease.

Up at Sammis Beach, Springs, in East Hampton Township, a group of eight French-Canadian sailors peered out from under an 18-foot dory they had been hiding under. The men had taken refuge under the dory on the beach after their 110-foot Schooner, Jean and Joyce, filled with coal and bound for New York, had foundered on the beach. The sailors, dressed in their heavy blue woolens, walked single file to the nearest home, where they rang a doorbell. They were subsequently taken into town and cared for in the Masonic Temple on Newtown Lane. Most of the men were suffering from exposure.

There was a good deal of humor exchanged immediately after the storm had passed. The people of eastern Long Island, walking gingerly through the jungle of green wreckage that blocked their streets, seemed hysterical, almost gay, in the catastrophe.

A woman in Bridgehampton told how a traveling salesman had visited her house just prior to the storm. Stuck in her house demonstrating a take-apart vacuum cleaner, the man had sealed all her windows, run outside and pushed a tree away that was about to fall on her house, and did everything but save her life during the storm. But he left, and she never knew his name.

In Westhampton Beach, a plumber by the name of Louis Green, employed at the Dune Deck, floated over on a roof to Oneck Point at the mainland. The Point, however, was a mass of green paint due to bursting barrels of paint, which had landed there, and so Louis Green walked into town covered with green.

Candles were lit. Flashlights appeared as the sun set at the end of that eerie day. A story was told how two women had their car stall in the street in the middle of the storm. And as they looked around for a gas station, one just rolled up and stopped in front of them. A variant of this had the two women driving into the gas station. The garage door opened and as they drove in, the rear wall blew out. “I think I’ve done enough damage,” the driver told the attendant, standing dutifully by the door. “I’ll try to get on home.”

Some of it was true, some of it was not. A 25-pound bass was indeed caught on Main Street, East Hampton. And two cows were found in a Quogue pasture a good distance from home, and the only way they could conceivably have gotten there was to have been blown over a six-foot barbed wire fence, still standing. Most fantastic of all, and perhaps most macabre, was a pair of wooden legs found by Mrs. Sigrid Hortell of Port Jefferson. She found the legs at Tuthill Point and turned them over to police. The legs had shoes and socks on. Three days later the police returned the wooden legs to their owner, an unharmed Mastic resident who was having considerable difficulty without them.

But there were serious things to consider as well. Of the nearly 200 homes along the 10-mile stretch of Dune Road, only 24 were still standing. All the rest had been swept away as if they had never been. There were people homeless, huddled in the hotels and public buildings, resting there with neither food nor water and all their possessions the clothes on their backs. And then, of course, there were the fatalities. Not as many as one might expect in a catastrophe of this size, but, nevertheless, exceeding 50, before the final count was in.

The most pressing problem that afternoon was in the township of East Hampton. The entire village of Montauk had been completely cut off from the outside world when the hurricane had begun. There was no radio communication. The Long Island Rail Road train, which had left Amagansett Station bound for Montauk, had been forced back when it reached Napeague. Napeague had simply ceased to exist, disappearing under the flood of seawater that linked Ocean with Sound.

Town Supervisor Perry Duryea Sr., who happened to be a Montauk resident, was in East Hampton Village when the storm hit, and met that evening with Richard Gilmartin, another Montauker in East Hampton, to discuss what to do. They finally decided to requisition a tractor and did so at 3 a.m., making the trip across Napeague to the Island of Montauk. With them were Dr. Paul Nugent, a physician who could care for the wounded, and Ferris Talmage of the Springs, the tractor driver. It was a surrealistic trip, past fallen trees, through inlets and ponds, but at dawn, when they arrived at the fishing village, they were greeted with cheers by the 150 Montaukers still holed up in the railroad cars. There hadn’t been one single casualty, though the whole village was a shambles, and the fishing fleet destroyed.

The sea had cut the slender South Fork of eastern Long Island in over a dozen places. There were three new inlets in Hampton Bays, a cut through Moriches Bay at Westhampton, through Mecox at Flying Point, and through Sagaponack, Georgica and Hook Ponds in East Hampton. The Napeague was cut by an estimated 65 sluices. It is a testament to the intensity of this storm that in some areas the land was changed permanently. Along the Dune Road at Shinnecock, the government had been trying for years to blast an opening through the barrier of land separating Shinnecock Bay from the sea. Prior to 1938, one could walk or drive out the peninsula of land at the southwest extremity of Southampton Village and continue unhindered all the way to Westhampton Beach. The only outlet for boats in Shinnecock Bay was through the Shinnecock Canal to the Peconic Bay to the north. Dynamite blasts had been tried in the early 1930s and dredging operations had gone on for years. But in early 1938, after considerable expense, the government simply gave the project up. It was too expensive and when they had gotten it open briefly, the sand had just closed it right back up. Well, the Hurricane of 1938 changed all that. By the morning of Thursday, September 22, a cut through the barrier reef, not where the government had been working, formed an outlet nearly a quarter of a mile wide. Water from the Bay was simply gushing out. This one cut, unaided by man, was formed by the storm, and it has remained open to this day, affording sea access for all the pleasure boats in Shinnecock Bay.

There was another irony at Shinnecock. In 1934, the United States Coast Guard had declared the ancient and venerable Shinnecock Lighthouse to be “unsafe” and “unfit for future use.” Abandoning this structure, which had been built in 1846, they replaced it with a tall steel tower, atop of which they affixed the navigational lighthouse light formerly in the old structure. When the storm had cleared after the Hurricane of 1938, the old and “unsafe” lighthouse, 160 feet tall, still stood straight and tall. But the Coast Guard’s new steel tower had been shattered to smithereens. Undaunted, the Coast Guard subsequently built a new steel tower and dynamited the “unsafe” lighthouse to the ground, proof, that it indeed could not stand. At eleven o’clock that night of September 21, the people of the East End retreated to their homes, without lights, and in some places without water, and prepared themselves for the ordeal that was to be that incredible autumn.

At midnight, the clock on the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church steeple, one of the few steeples that survived the storm, struck the end of that terrible day. September 21, 1938 was no more.


Could a storm, such as the one that struck eastern Long Island in 1938, come again today?

After having researched this article, largely in the East Hampton Public Library, I had an eerie sense that someday something like this could happen again. Walking out the front door at the end of my last day at the library, a breeze rustled some trees across the street, and I confess to feeling a terrible chill. Nature is a deceptive creature, and we don’t usually think of her as frightening. But to imagine the havoc she created in 1938—unannounced to be sure—but havoc, nevertheless, is to imagine a catastrophe that staggers the imagination.

I have no doubt that some day, perhaps in the year 10,000 A.D., all that is built here on eastern Long Island will be gone. In the spinning of the wheel, given the odds, and given enough time, all will be as nothing, making a mockery of what we’ve taken so seriously over the years.

But a hurricane of the magnitude of the storm of ‘38 is a rarity. It is on the scale of events comparable to the earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska in 1964, or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000 in 14 countries or the Japanese Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami this year.

Natural disasters of this size can happen really anywhere. There is no one place that is any safer than any other. The smaller storms, the normal-sized hurricane of recent years, for example, we can weather without concern, spectacular as they might be.

Perhaps with the Hurricane of 1938 safely behind us, we have a breather for a few more centuries. On the other hand, perhaps eastern Long Island is really marked. I’ve met many people, observers of the ‘38 storm who wouldn’t build near the ocean with a 12-foot pole with a six-inch extension. And yet, look at those brave souls building near the dunes today. It is, apparently, a matter of point of view. It’s crazy is what it is. But for a little while on the ocean, well, why not?

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