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North Fork History Project: 80 years ago, no one saw the Hurricane of 1938 coming

The hurricane that had no name — and made a terrible name for itself — came ashore in 1938.

Since then Long Island has felt the effects of other storms like superstorm Sandy (2012), Hurricane Bob (1991) and Hurricane Gloria (1985), but none has matched the 1938 hurricane, which will mark its 80th anniversary on Sept. 21.

Officially unnamed (hurricanes weren’t named back then), it has been known as the Great Hurricane of 1938, the Long Island Express and the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. By whatever name, it was a colossal hurricane of remarkable force. It made landfall with horrific fury, becoming the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century, killing hundreds, wiping out homes, buildings and other properties and causing billions of dollars (in today’s money) worth of damage.

It was one of the worst natural disasters in American history, said to surpass the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in terms of death, destruction and injury.

“It was an unrivaled disaster from which some communities would never recover physically, economically, or spiritually,” Cherie Burns wrote in her book, “The Great Hurricane: 1938.”

It all started in warm waters near the Cape Verde Islands, off the African coast of Senegal, a breeding ground for many Atlantic Ocean hurricanes. While a tempest was brewing thousands of miles away, Americans had other things on their minds at the time, like trying to pull themselves out of the Great Depression and worrying about the threat of war in Europe.

What they didn’t know was the threat posed by a cluster of thunderstorms that picked up strength while tracking across the Atlantic. A Brazilian merchant ship, the S.S. Alegrete, is credited with first spotting the storm 300 miles north of Puerto Rico on Sept. 18. By then it was probably a Category 5 hurricane as it traveled north, but it was growing stronger off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., accelerating to a forward motion of 60 to 70 mph, the fastest forward-moving speed ever recorded for a hurricane, according to Ms. Burns.

Weather forecasting in 1938 wasn’t nearly what it is today. It was an inexact science. No radar. No satellite imagery. No computers. No TV. No Weather Channel. Weather forecasters were largely reliant on data they received from ships at sea. When ships were warned about the approaching storm, they headed out of the way, leaving observational blind spots. In those instances, no updates were available on the storm’s progress.

“You go back to 1938, there was really minimal resources that they had to detect and forecast these types of storms,” said Nelson Vaz, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Hurricane Center.

(Coincidentally, The New York Times ran an editorial on the morning of the hurricane, hailing the U.S. Weather Bureau’s “unparalleled warning system” for alerting the public.)

Also, communication back then was slow — painfully slow by modern standards.

No word of an approaching hurricane was in the forecast for Long Islanders, some of whom didn’t even know what a hurricane was, and some would later say they didn’t think it was possible for a hurricane to reach Long Island. Only two hurricanes had been recorded in the New England region in the previous 300 years (in 1635 and 1815), according to Ms. Burns.

Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster at the United States Weather Bureau in 1938, had predicted that the storm was headed for the Northeast, but he was overruled by the chief forecaster, according to a History channel documentary about the hurricane.

With no warnings, no cause for alarm was seen. Most forecasters expected the storm to weaken as it reached cooler ocean waters off the Northeast coast, veer farther into the ocean and peter out as other storms had done before.

This one didn’t.

Instead, the storm, running parallel to the East Coast, picked up energy from the jet stream and other conditions, grew larger and more powerful, transforming into an extratropical cyclone. Eastern Long Island was in the path of a natural disaster and no one knew it.

It had been a rainy summer. What the forecast called for on Sept. 21 was rain, heavy at times.

Oppressive heat and heavy rain in the Long Island area had created the perfect conditions for the hurricane, which had been preceded by a deluge of rain that started on the afternoon of Sept. 17 and continued until after midnight on Sept. 19, causing almost continuous flooding. At least five men lost their lives in what The Riverhead News referred to at the time as the Noah’s Ark flood.

By the time that the Weather Bureau had learned that a Category 3 hurricane, with winds from 111 to 129 mph, was bearing down on Long Island, it was too late. With no warning of the hurricane’s approach, Long Islanders began Sept. 21, 1938, as they did any other. Little did they know they were about to experience a destructive force they could not have imagined.

Some fishermen suspected something was up when on the morning of Sept. 21 they saw a yellow-orange sky.

What some remembered beginning as a beautiful, warm, fall day, turned into a real-life horror. High winds, a tidal surge and high tide spelled the perfect storm. 

“No one knew that a monster was headed their way,” Ms. Burns wrote.

Everett Allen’s first day on the job as a reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times in Massachusetts was on Sept. 21, 1938. It was a day he would never forget. In his book “A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane,” Mr. Allen described the approaching hurricane about to unleash its fury on the unsuspecting victims in its path. 

He wrote, “Their world would never be the same again.”

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In two weeks, Part II: The storm comes ashore

Photo caption: Griffing Ave. after the hurricane hit. (Suffolk County Historical Society courtesy photo)

North Fork History Project

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

Part V: Slavery, an ignored part of our history

Part VI: Slavery on Shelter Island, a story not hidden away

Part VII: When was Cutchogue’s Old House built?

Part VIII: The Revolution ‘tore families apart’

Part IX: For one loyalist, all would be lost

Part X: From growing divisions within Southold, River Head town is born

Part XI: An epic saga of East End whaling

Part XII: Murders in 1854 shattered a hamlet

Part XIII: The Wickham murders part two

Part XIV: A Civil War on the North Fork

Part XVI: Shelter Island’s place in Quaker history