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North Fork History Project: The Great Hurricane of 1938 makes landfall

A story is told of a man standing on Northeast coastland on Sept. 21, 1938, gazing puzzlingly at an unusual gray cloud formation over the Atlantic Ocean. Gradually he realized, to his undoubted horror, that he wasn’t staring at clouds at all, but at a tremendous wall of water.

It was coming his way in all its ferocity.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 was about to make landfall on the south shore of eastern Long Island, bringing with its unannounced visit unimaginable force, causing waves of devastation. Packing a fierce punch, with sustained winds in excess of 120 miles per hour and a peak storm surge of 17 feet above normal high tide, the swirling hurricane destroyed buildings, houses and other structures as wind, rain and sea joined forces. People and livestock were killed. Cars and boats were tossed about like toys. Trees were leveled like toothpicks. Power was knocked out.

Long Islanders had never seen anything like it before, nature’s version of shock and awe, the most powerful and deadliest storm in the region’s recorded history.

The hurricane, which marked its 80th anniversary Friday, had an impact that hasn’t been forgotten. Asked about that day many years later, a man interviewed by reporter/historian Everett Allen said, “That was when I stopped believing in God!”

On Long Island, the South Fork bore the brunt of the blow. After making landfall around 2:30 p.m., the Category 3 hurricane mixed with high tide during the equinox to make for the perfect storm, a storm that pummeled Long Island.

Some survivors on the south shore clung to rooftops that had blown off. Others who weren’t as fortunate drowned or were beaten to death by wreckage in the storm surge. A Westhampton Beach movie theater filled with customers was reportedly lifted off its foundation by the storm’s waves and carried out to sea, where it sank, drowning all inside. Montauk was temporarily an island.

The hurricane, roaring like a speeding train and making the destruction it caused soundless, whirled north. The North Fork didn’t experience the death toll that the South Fork did. Only one North Fork fatality was reported as a result of the hurricane, a minor miracle in itself. Emmett Young of Southold died after being thrown from the roof of a building.

Weather forecasters didn’t have the modern tools of today, so there was no advance warning of the hurricane. Those in its path didn’t know what hit them.

Jack Heaney of Greenport, 86, feels blessed he didn’t lose his life during the hurricane. Mr. Heaney was a second-grader at the time, and was allowed out of school to walk to his home in downtown Greenport when the eye of the storm crossed over the village. Before he could get home, though, winds kicked up again and Mr. Heaney found himself clinging to a chain-link fence for dear life until his older brother, James, saved him.

“My legs were blowing up and down,” he said. “It was something I’ll never forget.”

Nelson Vaz, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Center, said: “To experience a hurricane that would have 100- to 120-mile-per-hour sustained winds, that’s something most people have not experienced in a lifetime … It’s just something that for most people is going to be hard to comprehend.”

Because of ground softened by days of hard rain preceding the hurricane, trees were easily uprooted and flung aside like twigs. In a two-hour span, over 600 trees were uprooted. Greenport lost much of its green. “The beautiful, stately elm trees, which for years have been Greenport’s pride, are practically wiped out,” The Suffolk Times reported at the time.

When the eye of the storm passed over the area, Albertus Clark of Shelter Island looked at Hays Beach, where some of Shelter Island’s largest trees stood. “All you could see were stubs,” he told the Riverhead News-Review in 2008.

The late Paul Stoutenburgh was a Southold High School student at the time. “Our world had become a nightmare of rain, wind and uprooted trees,” he recalled in a “Focus on Nature” column he wrote for The Suffolk Times in 1991.

John Holzapfel delivered a presentation about the hurricane at Peconic Landing in Greenport on Saturday. In a video interview with Times Review Media Group’s Rachel Siford, he said: “The North Fork was on the right side of the hurricane and the right side of the hurricane is always much stronger — and especially with this hurricane because its forward speed was almost 70 miles per hour, so that adds to the speed of the wind, and together, that produced a lot more damage. The surge was a major, major destructive force in all of the waterfront properties and the docks, and a lot of boats were destroyed.”

Shirley Anderson of Mattituck, 88, attended the Peconic Landing event. She chuckled at the memory of running from fallen tree to fallen tree after the hurricane to bring eggs to a sickly friend. “The results of the hurricane, now we saw results all over the place and they were pretty bad,” she said. “And we had no idea that this was going to happen. It just, boom, it was there.”

The hurricane brought out some of the best in human nature. Among the heroes was Herman Ficken, manager of Greenport’s Metro Theatre. While some 60 patrons were watching a matinee, Mr. Ficken became concerned for their safety as the storm raged. He ordered them to file out of the theater just before it collapsed, The County Review reported.

Capt. Clarence Sherman of Shelter Island was a hero at sea. He skippered a ferry that departed Orient Point prior to 1 p.m., en route to New London, Conn. Halfway through the journey the steamer hit 125-mile-per-hour winds. A passenger on that ferry, Mrs. Edwin King, gave an account of the trip to The Suffolk Times. When crew members handed out life preservers, she said, “our hearts dropped as we felt that the end was near.”

However, Capt. Sherman guided the ship through rough waters until finally bringing it safely to shore in Groton, Conn., ending a 10-hour ordeal.

A child of the hurricane was born, as detailed in Mr. Allen’s book, “A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane.” Mrs. Joseph Gatz of Riverhead gave birth to a daughter at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport around the time the hospital’s roof blew off. Rain flooded the delivery room, but the attending physician reported the baby as being “healthy, vigorous, unaffected.”

The County Review reported that Old Steeple Church of Aquebogue “can no longer be called by that endearing name.” The steeple was laid low during the hurricane, as witnessed by Lettie Downs. The Aquebogue woman, in a 2008 interview with the Riverhead News-Review, said: “It gave me the strangest feeling when I saw the steeple come down. Things like that don’t happen, but it did.”

Some people must have wondered if the world was coming to an end.

Verne Campbell of Riverhead was a kindergartner at Pulaski Street School in 1938. Recollecting the event, she told a reporter: “I guess I felt like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I was so frightened. The sky was gray and eerie and very terrifying.”

The noise was also memorable. Gertrude Reeves of Orient, a school bus driver at the time, told a reporter the wind was so loud she couldn’t hear the sounds of trees and poles falling.

The Southold Historical Society maintains oral histories of some who experienced the hurricane. John Stankewicz of Southold was one of them. “The 1938 hurricane, that was the worst,” he said.

Mr. Stankewicz, a seventh-grader in Peconic at the time, recalled what happened to his family’s two-car garage during the storm. “The car was in there, my father and brother were in the garage when the wind took that garage straight up in the air and threw it against the hill a hundred feet away from there, and my father and brother weren’t scratched,” he said. “My brother saw it coming and knocked my father down. I had a bicycle in there and it threw my bicycle in the pigpen.”

Ann Dixon of Southold survived a close call. She was in a friend’s car when a large branch fell on top of it. “So,” she said, “we got out of the car, went back into the school, turned around and looked out the door and there was a whole tree on the car.”

Pat Milford of Southold was 3 at the time of the hurricane, but heard an interesting tale from an older friend. Their school at that time did not have restrooms for boys, who used outhouses. While the hurricane raged, a teacher tried to reassure students, telling them: “Children, it’s just a little wind. Don’t worry about it.”

Just as she said that, all the outhouses blew down the street.

The archives reveal some amazing stories, like that of a man who had pulled himself onto a makeshift raft during the storm surge, only to discover it was covered by red ants that immediately swarmed all over him.

Another story tells of a Westhampton Beach man who, coincidentally, on the morning of Sept. 21 received in the mail a barometer he had ordered. Upset that the barometer gave what he thought was an incorrect reading for a hurricane, he went out to mail a letter to the manufacturer. Upon returning home, he discovered his house was gone.

After two hours over Long Island, the hurricane moved on, causing massive damage in New England before dissipating over southeastern Canada on Sept. 22.

On the quiet, calm morning of Sept. 22, Long Islanders could see in the light of day the full extent of the damage. In time, the rest of the country would learn what happened. The aftermath would have resembled an atomic blast to the survivors, had they known what an atom bomb was.

In her book, “The Great Hurricane: 1938,” Cherie Burns wrote: “Hardly a household or soul was untouched either by death, destruction, or trauma. Whole towns and those who lived in them were in shock.”

Mr. Holzapfel said, “After the hurricane, all the white houses were painted green, and they were painted green from the chlorophyll of the leaves just being blown apart.”

Incredibly, The Suffolk Times put out a paper the day after the hurricane, with the banner headline, “E.L.I. SWEPT BY TROPICAL HURRICANE.” The following day The Riverhead News came out with its lead story headlined, “TIDAL WAVE AT WESTHAMPTON BEACH; 13 BODIES ARE ALREADY RECOVERED.” Another headline below that read, “Many Scenes of Horror Are Almost Indescribable …”

Surviving black-and-white photos tell some of the story, but the statistics are mind-blowing. When it was over, 700 lives had been lost (about 60 on Long Island), about 63,000 people were left homeless, about 8,900 buildings were destroyed, some 3,300 boats were lost or damaged and approximately two billion trees were destroyed, according to the National Weather Service. The total monetary damage amounted to $620 million (about $11 billion in 2018 dollars). The hurricane changed the face of Long Island, creating new inlets, including the Shinnecock Inlet.

Prof. Scott Mandia, who teaches meteorology and climate change at Suffolk County Community College, said, “The psychological damage is hard to calculate.”

He said it’s not a question of if, but when a hurricane of that force or greater strikes Long Island in the future, calculating a 54 percent probability of that happening within the next 50 years.

“It’s a definite that we’re going to have one of those,” Mr. Mandia said in an interview following his presentation about the 1938 hurricane at the Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library last Thursday evening. “What we don’t know is when. It could be tomorrow, it could be a hundred years, but as we keep warming the planet, we now increase the probability that this is going to happen. We’re loading the dice, putting the atmosphere on steroids, basically.”

Mr. Allen’s first day as a reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times in Massachusetts was Sept. 21, 1938. He closed his book, “A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane,” by writing: “It was, in fact, one of the most thoroughly personal things I have ever experienced, and in one of the most thoroughly terrible ways. In twenty-four hours, I established a career and a direction in life. The price I had to pay for it was to watch the only world I had ever known well writhe in torment for the few moments required to destroy it.”

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Photo caption: The front page of The Riverhead News tells the story two days after the 1938 hurricane struck.

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

Part XVII: 80 years ago, no one saw the Hurricane of 1938 coming