The ’38 Hurricane

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A favorite story on Long Island concerns a man at Westhampton Beach who received in the mail on September 21, 1938, a barometer purchased a tew days earlier in New York. He found the instrument’s needle pointing down near 28 degrees, at the section of the dial marked “Tornadoes and Hurricanes.” He shook the barometer and banged it with his fist, but the needle refused to move, so he rewrapped it, enclosed a note of complaint, and carried it to the village post office. Soon after he mailed it, his shorefront house was demolished—by hurricane.

It is unlikely that such a barometric warning would be disregarded today on Long Island or along the New England coast, where there have been several hurricanes since 1938. But in that year such storms were almost unknown in the Northeast, and the Weather Bureau didn’t bother much about tracking coastal disturbances north of Virginia, assuming that storms moving up from the Caribbean would blow out to sea at Cape Hatteras, as most of them indeed do.

The hurricane of 1938 was first sighted by a ship in the Atlantic 350 miles northeast of Puerto Rico at 9:30 on the evening of September 16. The turbulence was moving at about twenty miles an hour toward Miami, but on the morning of the nineteenth it began to turn away from Florida, eventually bearing due north toward Cape Hatteras.

A story in the New York Times on the morning of Wednesday the twenty-first described “thousands of relieved residents in South Florida” taking down barricades from before their houses and stores. Quoting the weather bureau in Jacksonville, the story said the hurricane was “turning on a northward arc” and “apparently” was heading out to sea. The Times buried the article on page 27—but editorially praised the “admirably organized meteorological service” of the federal government that enabled “New York and the rest of the world [to] have been so well informed about the [Florida] cyclone.”

The Times ’s prediction (made Tuesday night) for Wednesday’s weather in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island was merely for “rain, probably heavy today and tomorrow, cooler.” The coastal forecast from Eastport, Maine, to New York City was for “fresh southerly winds except fresh north or northeast near Sandy Hook, increasing this afternoon or tonight and overcast with rain.”

Thus the great hurricane of ’38 caught the weather bureaus in New York and Washington completely off balance when, instead of turning eastward oft Hatteras, it roared straight up the coast at an incredible forward speed of nearly sixty miles an hour. The storm cylinder was about 150 miles wide and carried gusts of over 150 miles an hour. Shortly before four in the afternoon of the twenty-first the hurricane hit Long Island. The savage winds and towering waters then boomed into the Connecticut and Rhode Island shore lines with enough force to register on a seismograph in Silka, Alaska.

A hurricane gets its energy from sucking up warm moisture in a chimneylike whirlwind. Usually, after leaving the ocean and passing over land it dies down because the supply of charging wetness peters out. But New England had received heavy rains for several days prior to the twenty-first. The land was warm and saturated; therefore, the hurricane’s force was undiminished as it swept north for five hours after leaving Long Island Sound. The storm tore across the Connecticut River valley, up through Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire (salt spray from the ocean whitening windows en route), and on into Canada, spreading the worst disaster in the history of New England.

Yet even after noon on the day of the blow, weather personnel were still predicting that it would move off to the northeast. Shortly after one o’clock there were gale warnings on Long Island. Ernest S. Clowes, a newspaper editor at Bridgehanipton, later noted that “in none of these warnings was the word hurricane used… it is doubtful if anyone, the Coast Guard included, considered that anything really dangerous was at hand.” In an advisory report issued at 2 P.M.—with the hurricane less than two hours from Long Island- the Weather Bureau said only that the tropical storm moving north-northeastward seventy-five miles east-southeast of Atlantic City would be “likely” to pass “over Long Island and Connecticut late this afternoon or early tonight attended by. shifting gales.”

Nowadays it is easy enough to show that the Weather Bureau should have been able from its own reports to figure that the hurricane was apt to move straight up from Cape Hatteras. It said on Tuesday night that there was a solid high-pressure area extending from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland southward over the ocean, and that another high existed over the Midwest. High-pressure zones tend to repidse lows—like hurricanes. Between the two highs, as the bureau noted Tuesday night, there was a broad trough of warm, humid low pressure extending southward from New England to Cape Hatteras. That trough was a red carpet; there was simply no place else for the storm to go.

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.

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.

Some of the people on the stalled and swaying train tried to walk away along the flooded causeway; a woman and a dining-car worker were drowned. But most of the passengers were herded into the first car behind the locomotive. A trainman, working in water up to his shoulders, managed to uncouple that car from the rest of the train. With the one crowded car in tow, the engineer moved the locomotive slowly ahead, nudging the house and the cabin cruiser off the track. He then proceeded to higher, safer ground—before the storm wave hit and toppled the abandoned cars.

That evening those on the train saw a red sky over nearby New London, where a quarter-mile area of waterfront was ablaze. The storm had thrust a five-masted training ship up against a building, bursting a boiler in the furnace room. Other fires had started from short-circuited wiring in flooded basements. Fallen trees and other debris blocked fire engines on their way to the critical area, and the whole city was threatened. But at eleven that night—while firemen were preparing to dynamite buildings to stop the spread of flame—the wind shifted to the north and confined the fire to the smouldering waterfront.

Spared the terror of the seacoast’s storm wave, the interior of New England had to contend with flood levels in many of its major river systems as well as with hurricane winds. At Hartford, the flooding Connecticut River kept three thousand W.P.A. workers and volunteers at work for three days and nights building a sandbag dike that saved most of the city. At times the top of the barrier was but inches above the rising water. The Connecticut city of Norwich, isolated in the flooded Thames River valley, had to be supplied by airdrop.

Dartmouth’s campus at Hanover, New Hampshire, was only slightly less battered than Yale’s at New Haven, Connecticut. And elsewhere in New Hampshire, the Mount Washington Cog Railway’s trestle and base station were torn down amid winds that the summit weather station there recorded at over 180 miles an hour. There was no mistaking the power of that wind: after the storm a gannet, a sea bird whose habitat is the North Atlantic, was found near Barre, Vermont, over 100 miles from salt water.

All of New England, including Maine, suffered staggering losses in trees. Two thirds of Vermont’s sugar maples and half of New Hampshire’s white pines fell; the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, alone counted 16,000 shade trees down. The United States Forest Service estimated that the fallen timber totalled about three and a quarter billion board feet—enough to build 200,000 five-room houses.

Connecticut had been, relatively speaking, fairly well protected by Long Island, but not so Rhode Island, whose shore line from Watch Hill to Point Judith was utterly at the mercy of the high winds and the big wave. Rhode Island’s total of 380 storm deaths was higher than the total of other storm-stricken states.

Waterfront cottages were already being battered and flooded when the storm wave, more than thirty feet high, came rolling in and finished the job, carrying off people and debris. At Misquamicut Beach, forty-one persons were killed, including a group of ten women who had been at a church picnic. Some stretches of beach were swept so clean, foundations and all, and were so changed topographically that owners later were unable to find their lots. The Red Cross, trying to check on missing persons, had to consult telephone company maps to find out where houses had been. One Misquamicut woman later wrote, “You watch your house take to the air soundlessly—complete with weather vane, standard plumbing, unpaid bills, and your eyeglasses.”

At Watch Hill, at the southwestern tip of the state, one resident described the wave as “covering everything like a long roll of cotton.” The local yacht club was split in two, and a grand piano came flying out through a gap in its roof. A young woman who had been watching the crashing surf was unable to escape the final, massive wave. She was thrown up into the crossarms of a telephone pole; as the pole toppled, its broken wires whipped around her, binding her securely. Thus lashed, she floated all night in Little Narragansett Bay.

At Napatree Point, in Watch Hill, Mrs. Helen Lee recalled,

I was sitting on the wood-pile … [on the porch] with the dog and saying aloud, “I wonder how much longer,” when something hit the front of the house, I think it may have been a section of the retaining wall, and the wave washed into my lap. It knocked the porch down, something broke my left arm, and the dog and I were washed into the bay, as if on a roller coaster, all in ten seconds. I looked up and the lattice of the porch was coming at me. I ducked under some squares of our sidewalk, which I had seen washed out like stamps, and the lattice went over my head. I reached the dog and undid the leash, and she floated off on a board …

Mrs. Lee was wearing a waterproof watch; it was 4:30 just before she was washed into the bay, and at 6:30, having clung to debris in the interim, she landed on the Connecticut shore across the bay.

The storm did not, of course, confine itself to the coast. In Providence, people were drowned near the city hall, and the water level rose to a record thirteen feet, nine inches.

Among those trapped in downtown Providence was the novelist David Cornel De Jong, who found refuge in a third-floor office. Marooned for most of the night, he watched people form human chains and make their way to safety through water up to their chins. He also witnessed, and subsequently wrote about, the eerie aftermath of disaster—the arrival of looters:

They came, neck deep, or swimming, holding flashlights dry above them, rising out of the water and disappearing through the demolished store windows. At first there were few, then there were hordes, assisting each other. They seemed organized, almost regimented, as if they’d daily drilled and prepared for this event, the like of which hadn’t happened in a hundred and twenty years. They were brazen and insatiable; they swarmed like rats; they took everything. When a few policemen came past in a rowboat, they didn’t stop their looting. They knew they outnumbered the police.

De Jong’s arithmetic was accurate: the last big hurricane had hit New England in 1815, and even though it had swept from New York to Boston, taking lives along the same Connecticut and Rhode Island shore lines (and flooding Providence), it was long since forgotten in 1938. There had been other storms, too, in the intervening years, notably a hurricane in September of 1821, after which a Connecticut travelling salesman, William Redfield, became the first man to determine the whirlwind nature of hurricanes: near his home in Middleton he saw storm-felled trees with their tops facing northwest; farther west, in Litchfield County, trees had been felled southward. A number of dying hurricanes had touched New Jersey, New York, and New England early in the twentieth century, but to no remarkable effect.

With such a relative paucity of sizable hurricanes, thrifty New Englanders had been reluctant to take insurance againts such storms. The National Board of Fire Underwriters estimated that more than nine-five percent of the storm’s damage was uninsured.

On the sunny day after the hurricane, many parts of the stricken area were able to communicate with the rest of the United States only via short-wave radio. With telephone, electric power, and railroad lines out, and with highways blocked, there was a virtual news black-out. (The New York Times that morning, like most papers outside of New England, was quite unaware of the widespread destruction; it gave its biggest front-page play to the worsening situation in Nazi-threatened Czechoslovakia.) Wires seeking information about missing persons were sent from New York to eastern New England via Paris and London, being transmitted thence to receiving stations on Cape Cod, which had been comparatively undamaged.

The hurricane of ’38 forced thousands of people in the Northeast to fly for the first time. Air travel between New York and Boston, then in its adolescence, was handled by American Airlines; ordinarily the daily passenger total was about 200, but 1,000 people flew the Boston-New York lanes the day after the storm, and during the next week, with railroads and highways still out, American had to call in planes from United, T.W.A., and Eastern to handle the rush. Meanwhile Postmaster General James A. Parley had pressed into service the battleship Wyoming to carry the mail between the two ports.

On the countryside and in the minds and hearts of the New Englanders it touched, the hurricane of ’38 left wounds that have yet to heal—incredible in light of the brevity of its actual presence in their midst. In Long Island, for instance, the two bad blows with the lull between took only about two hours to come and go, not counting the strong winds that came before and after the storm proper.

Ernest Clowes, the Bridgehampton newspaperman, later published a book, The Hurricane of 1938 on Eastern Long Island . In it he wrote:

By 5:30 the hurricane was over. It was still blowing a strong gale, but the clouds were thinning and breaking, the rain was only a fitful drizzle that kept on at intervals until about seven. People began appearing on the streets and towards six o’clock groups of school-children with linked arms and bright eager faces were seen battling their way home against the wind. It was a changed scene, a new landscape, for where that morning great avenues of trees had stood in the full leaf of summer there were great gaps in the sky, and all the trees that stood were as stripped and as barren as November.