The ’38 Hurricane

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But in fairness to the Weather Bureau it should be pointed out that federal meteorologists had no tracking facilities or warning system comparable to today’s; the time was a long way oft when a nascent hurricane would be spotted by aircraft far south of the mainland and given a name like Brenda or Carol or Diane to identify it in subsequent reports. Jn the thirties, information on such storms depended entirely on voluntary reports from merchant ships and, occasionally, from commercial airplanes. And this particular hurricane’s astonishing forward speed—nearly three times that of the average—was another factor. “Had the storm not moved with such unprecedented rapidity,” a Weather Bureau official wrote later, “warnings … would have reached nearly everyone in the affected area.”

On the morning of the twenty-first, when the hurricane was starting its unexpected sprint from Cape Hatteras to Long Island, there were only two reports from ships at sea. One came at two in the morning, ancl placed the storm’s center south of Hatteras; the other, at 9 A.M. , placed it farther north and farther from the coast—strengthening the assumption that it would veer out to sea.

For the next seven hours—from 9 A.M. until the hurricane ripped into Long Island around 4 P.M. —the bureau received “not a scrap of information” about the storm’s whereabouts from ships at sea, according to Dr. James H. Kimball, the bureau’s chief meteorologist in New York City. Perhaps earlier reports had scared shipping away from that section of the coast; and if there was a vessel somewhere in the troubled waters, its men were probably too busy to send weather reports to the government. Airlines in the East were grounded that day because of the weather; there were no reports from aloft.

The lack of warning was as responsible for the wide-spread damage as were the gales, the storm waves, and the devastating floods that followed them. Deaths were estimated at six hundred, including about one hundred people who simply were never found. Another 1,754 were injured, and 93,122 households sufferred losses of one sort or another. Nearly 7,000 summer cottages and 2,000 permanent houses were destroyed. The total damage figure, at iggS’s depressed prices, ran to at least $250,000,000, and some estimates were well over $300,000,000. Subsequent hurricanes in the Northeast have been costlier in inflated-dollar amounts, but their death tolls have been smaller because there has been advance warning.

Fortunately, the hurricane of ’38 struck after the summer season and most of the cottages at the exposed beaches had been closed. Had it hit a few weeks earlier, the mortality figure might have approached that at Galveston, Texas, where on September 8, 1900, more than 6,000 people died in a hurricane (see “When the Hurricane Struck” in the October, 1968, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). On the other hand, the time of the autumnal equinox is a time of unusually high tides. Abetted by the hurricane, tides for that day in 1938 ran from seven to fourteen feet above normal.

Hurricane derives from Huracan, the storm god of the Arawak tribe of the West Indies. It is a cyclonic storm that forms on oceans, usually in the hot, calm doldrums of the tropics, and carries winds of at least seventy-five miles an hour. The term applies only to such storms originating in the Atlantic between Africa and the West Indies, and oft the west coast of Mexico. In India and China the term is typhoon; in Philippine waters it is baguio .

A hurricane begins with warm, moist air rising from the ocean surface; cooler, denser air rushes in to replace it. As the process builds, with more warm moisture rising in a cylindrical core or eye, and with more inrushing winds blowing around it, the doughnut-shaped storm begins to cover a wide area—anywhere from fifty to five hundred miles across. It moves slowly, at about twenty miles an hour, like a top spinning across a floor, creating low barometric pressure that people can feel in their ears, as if they were in a fast-descending elevator.

In the Northern Hemisphere, hurricane winds blow counterclockwise, the direction of their flow, like that of draining water, being governed by the earth’s spin. The winds on the forward side of the storm cylinder sweep around from the southeast to the northwest, swing around the back side, and then veer east and north once more. Thus, as the eye of the hurricane crossed the south shore of Long Island between Babylon and Palchogue, winds to the east of that point were blowing in from the ocean, pushing cottages at Westhampton Beach into the bay. On the west side of the storm—in Nassau County, at Jones Beach, at Coney Island—the winds were blowing the other way, out to sea.