This is part two of a three-part series Dan Rattiner wrote for the 80th anniversary of the devastating Hurricane of 1938 in our September 21, 2018 issue. It originally appeared as one long-form story.
By 5:30 p.m. 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.
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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 LVIS (MRS. W. STERLING PETERS) IF YOU KNOW WHERE ANY ELM TREES AREAVAILABLE IN THIS LOCALITY. TREES FROMAWAY ARE NOT WANTED AS EASTERN LONGISLAND 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 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, ran 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 due to bursting barrels of paint that 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 five-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. The police three days later returned the wooden legs to their owner, an unharmed Mastic resident who was having considerable difficulty without them.
But there were other 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 their only 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 in the township of East Hampton was that 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 the 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 Stretch 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—and failing—for years to blast an opening through the barrier of land separating Shinnecock Bay from the sea.
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.
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. At the St. Andrews Dune Church in Southampton only one wall remained standing intact after the storm. On that wall was bolted the bronze plaque with the inscription “Thou rulest the raging of the sea. Thou stillest the waves thereof when they arise.”
Could a storm, such as the one which struck eastern Long Island in 1938, come again today? Well, we have had Sandy, but the damage it caused here was not even close to this. After researching 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.