The ’38 Hurricane

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Winds on the west, or left, side of a hurricane are generally lighter than those in its eastern section, where the whirlwind’s centrifugal force is greatest. Moreover, the left-side winds, blowing from the north, are somewhat retarded by the general northering motion of the entire storm mass. As a consequence, the hurricane of ’38 left less damage to the west of the eye’s path, which crossed Connecticut along the Naugatuck Valley between Bridgeport and New Haven, went up through Waterbury and Torrington into Massachusetts near the Berkshires, and on up through the center of Vermont.

Again because of centrifugal force, the winds near the eye are not as powerful as those on the cylinder’s perimeters. The greatest damage in 1938 came in Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, central Massachusetts, and southwestern New Hampshire—fifty to one hundred miles east of the eye’s path.

The eye is, of course, the relatively calm hole in the center of the storm; it is preceded by strong and damaging winds and is followed by gales still more destructive on the back side of the pattern.

People in the path of the eye when it passed over Long Island thought that the storm was over; with the lull came clearing skies. Many people came out of their houses to survey the damage; many made the mistake of hurrying to the waterfront to check on their boats, unaware that the pause—which lasted about fifteen minutes—was only an intermission.

A glance at the barometer during the lull should have told people that the worst was yet to come. At Patchogue the reading dipped to 27.95, an all-time low. Farther east, in the Hamptons, where the destruction was worse, the pressure was slightly higher, and the lull less noticeable—the wind dropped to only about fifty miles per hour as it shifted around to the southwest and south. Then came the full force of the hurricane, and the great wall of water. “It looked like a thick and high bank of fog rolling in fast from the ocean,” said one survivor. “When it came closer, we saw that it wasn’t fog. It was water.”

A phenomenon like a hurricane is bound to leave in its wake not only devastation but thousands of stories —astonishing, sometimes comic, incidents; accounts of the storm’s brutal and freakish behavior; paeans by the living, threnodies for the dead. Everyone who weathered the hurricane of ’38 had his tale to tell. It was said that a panhandler working Boston Common for weeks after the storm wore a sign that said, “For 25 cents, I’ll listen to your story of the hurricane.”

Fire Island and Westhampton Beach—where the storm first struck—form a long, narrow barrier along the south side of Long Island. Between it and Long Island lie Great South, Moriches, and Shinnecock bays. The townspeople of Hampton Bays, Long Island, had long wanted an inlet through the barrier beach enclosing Shinnecock Bay, to give their boats access to the sea. Attempts to dig such a passage by hand had failed, but the ’38 hurricane obligingly dug one that has been carefully maintained ever since.

At Cherry Grove on Fire Island the storm wave picked up the cottage of Herman Schoenfeld and carried it two hundred yards. The water turned it completely around and set it down, upright, with the lamps on its tables still standing and a jug of water in the kitchen sink untoppled. Not far away on the same ravished beach there sat, on a pile of kitchen debris, a fresh egg, shell intact.

A cow that had been pastured on Moriches Island in Moriches Bay, behind Westhampton Beach (where only 26 of 179 summer houses survived), was found in a thicket on the Long Island shore, three quarters of a mile away, safe and sound. A man in Mastic, Long Island, saw both his artificial legs carried away; they were found, side by side, on a beach at East Moriches, a few miles distant, four days later.

Some Bridgehampton residents remember a woman who stopped her car at a garage and service station to ask for shelter during the storm. When the doors of the garage were opened for her, its rear wall blew out and its windows shattered. The woman said, “I think I’ve done enough damage,” and drove on down the road.

At Easthampton’s celebrated Maidstone Club, high on dunes overlooking the ocean, the storm wave washed over the clubhouse and flooded the golf course. The Beach Club and Meadow Club in Southampton and J. P. Morgan’s private island in Glen Cove were among other bastions of high society wrecked by the storm.

Most of the Connecticut shore, with Long Island acting as a breakwater, escaped the direct blow of the storm wave, but not so the exposed waterfront towns to the east, Stonington and New London. The wave destroyed all but two of Stonington’s fifty-five-vessel fishing-boat fleet; it was there, too, that 275 passengers on the New Haven Railroad’s Bostonian went through an evening they never forgot.

The train came to a halt on a narrow causeway outside of town at the water’s edge; surf was breaking over the cars and washing out the roadbed. Ahead—on the tracks—were an uprooted house and a cabin cruiser. Backing up was out of the question: the tracks behind were gone, and the brakes in the rear cars had locked when surf-driven debris broke their air-compression lines.