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1938 ’Long Island Express’ Hurricane: Could It Happen Again?

Originally Posted: March 07, 2011

Nicole A. Flotteron

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A private boat is lifted up across Montauk Highway. (Joseph Soares and Arcadia Publishing)

Southampton - September 21, 1938 started out as a day like any other for Long Island residents. The official weather forecast for the day predicted clouds and wind, which wasn't and still isn't unusual for this region; it was to be a day like any other. Children headed off to school, parents to work, fisherman went to their boats to haul eel pots, and vacationers headed to the beach, movie theatre and skating rink.

Approximately two billion trees were killed in the Northeast during the storm. (sunysuffolk.edu)

By early afternoon however, in close proximity to high tide, and with little to no warning, a powerful Category 3 hurricane now known as the 'Long Island Express' struck Long Island, and later New England, Vermont, New Hampshire and even Quebec. In total, the storm cost $306 million in damage, $18 billion by today's dollar. Not only was there a massive loss of life in this storm, but also, the geography of Eastern Long Island was drastically rearranged.

The storm was one of five great, recorded storms to strike Long Island. Others took place in 1635, 1815, 1821 and 1893. Some scientists and meteorologists have developed a "70 to 80 year theory," which suggests that an epic storm will strike every 70 to 80 years. Today, we are 73 years from the 1938 Long Island Express, and as a wise man once said "history repeats itself." Some fear that even over 70 years later, we are no more prepared for such a storm as we were in 1938.

The storm formed off of the Cape Verde Islands in Africa on September 10. It then swept across the Atlantic past Puerto Rico and Florida, and roared up the coast. Unlike today, there was little in terms of advanced weather mapping or prediction in 1938. There were no radars, satellites, or tracking of any kind.

St. Andrews Church after the storm. (stonybrook.edu)

Most weather news came from patterns and word of mouth, although on the day of the hurricane, barometric pressure readings dropped significantly, indicating something was amiss. Aside from a lack of ability to predict weather, the media was also preoccupied with the goings on in Europe, as Hitler and the Nazi's annexed Austria and set their sights on Czechoslovakia.

A house in Westhampton destroyed. (NYtimes.com)

On the day of September 21, 1938, the storm was moving at about 30 miles an hour as it passed Cape Hatteras and the Carolina coast at 8:30 a.m. Seven hours later, the Category 3 hurricane smacked square into Long Island, moving at a rate of 60 to 70 miles per hour, the fastest moving hurricane on record for this day. For this reason, it was nicknamed the 'Long Island Express,' and it brought with it storm surges of 12 to 25 feet, waves of 40 feet high, and winds gusting in excess of 180 miles per hour in some places.

More than 600 people were killed in the storm, 50 of them on Long Island, and 29 of those in Westhampton Beach. Electricity and phone lines across the island were knocked out for days, and the damage was unimaginable, even by today's standards.

Westhampton was the hardest hit town on the East End, as it was just east of the eye of the storm and faced the worst conditions. Over six feet of water flooded Main Street and over 150 houses were destroyed.

In Southampton at the time, there were 179 houses on Dune Road. Only two were left standing after the storm. The popular St. Andrews Church of the Dunes was also destroyed and left in ruins. Though building standards and practices are much improved today, it is terrifying to think what would happen to all of the houses on Dune Road if a storm like this were to strike again.

Shinnecock before the storm hit in the summer of 1938. (lishore.org)

In Bridgehampton, farmers took the worst hit, as 50 barns were destroyed, and acres upon acres of potato farms were washed out or covered in sand and seawater.

In East Hampton and Montauk, 150 fisherman were left homeless, 80 boats were either damaged or destroyed, thousands of dollars of nets and traps were ruined, 100 houses were damaged, the Long Island Rail Road tracks were torn up, and the area as a whole was isolated for two whole days.

In Sag Harbor, the Old Whaler's Church lost its 185 foot steeple during the storm.

Shinnecock inlet opened up in a photo taken on September 24, 1938. (lishore.org)

Aside from the loss of property and lives, tree damage was a huge issue during the storm. According to Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences who has written extensively about the storm, two billion trees were lost across the affected region. Of that 3,500 were in the Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Hayground area. In East Hampton, residents were heartbroken as the lush canopy provided by 68 Main Street elms were destroyed. Of the trees that survived the storm, many were killed weeks later by browning caused by salt spray.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this storm was the geological impact it had on the region. The force of the storm created 12 new inlets on Long Island. Moriches Inlet, which was created in a Nor'easter in 1931, was widened by the storm to more than 4,000 feet.

Tens of thousands of houses were destroyed across the Northeast during the hurricane. (long-island-portal.com)

Most interesting for those on the South Fork, is the Shinnecock Inlet, which was created during the hurricane. Other inlets across the East End were filled with a variety of debris from cars, to trees, to houses, to boats and tons of sand. Severe coastal erosion occurred as a result of the storm and the creation of the Shinnecock Inlet.

The aftermath of the storm was devastating. Water flowed through the streets littered with dead bodies of humans, chickens, dogs, other animals, and debris. Bodies were laid out on the Country Club lawn in Weshampton beach.

The ferocity, speed, and scope of the storm remains unmatched to this day, and as a result, its hard hit on the Northeast, a heavily populated and vital economic area, though devastating, helped to pull Long Island out of the great depression. The damage was so extensive that thousands of workers flooded into the region to help clean up - 2,700 men were brought in by the Bell Systems telephone company alone to help repair downed lines.

The damage from the storm was extensive and devastating. (riskmanagementmonitor.com)

Many have said that we are long overdue for a mega storm, and when it comes down to it, there is a strong possibility that we could be worse off now than we were in 1938. Though we have more storm predicting capabilities, and though warnings would surely be advanced, if a storm like the 'Long Island Express' were to hit Long Island today, there is no question that it would have the potential to be one of the costliest storms in United States history.

Winds battered the East End downing trees, power-lines, and buildings. (Joseph Soares and Arcadia Publishing)

According to Jared Wade, senior editor of Risk Management magazine, a Cateogy 3 storm striking Long Island is not just a possibility, it is inevitable. "Given its geography, population density and general affluence, New York's Long Island in particular faces a tremendous risk. When the 'Long Island Express' hit in 1938, it was eastern Suffolk County that endured the greatest winds, storm surge and flooding, resulting in approximately 50 deaths," said Wade in an article written in June, 2010, "According to 1940 census data, the population at the time was just under 200,000. Today, nearly 1.5 million people live in Suffolk County. And another 1.34 million reside in neighboring Nassau County compared to the roughly 400,000 there in 1938."

There are currently 2.84 million people on Long Island alone, most of who live within close proximity to the coast. The structural damage would be unbelievable. The last significant storm to hit Long Island was Category 1 storm 'Hurricane Gloria,' which hit in 1985.

There is no question that the strength, scope, speed and intensity of the storm was devastating on all fronts, but there is much that can be learned from the past, to ensure that we are better prepared for the future. There are many things that you and your family can do today, in order to be prepared for a disaster tomorrow.

Visit the website Ready.gov to learn how to make a kit, have a family plan, and be informed. You can also visit the Red Cross's website for similar information.

Bridges linking Westhampton's Dune Road to the mainland were completely demolished as floodwaters rolled onto Main Street. (Joseph Soares and Arcadia Publishing)

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Guest (Ashley Nevins) from alaska says::
this is ashley nevins , i truly believe that the hurricane created so much damage, it was heartbreaking, i will never be able to get over this tragedy. I lost my great aunt hilda. why mother nature why, please reply asap. xoxo
Sep 14, 2012 11:39 am

Guest (Kelley Jordon) from Salt Lake City, Utah says::
why is there nothing on other places besides southampton? this is annoying. im doing a project and need info!
Feb 13, 2012 11:16 pm


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