Twelve years later, the headline still stands out in my mind. I’ve read thousands of newspaper headlines since, written hundreds more, most of them easily forgettable. READ
Twelve years later, the headline still stands out in my mind. I’ve read thousands of newspaper headlines since, written hundreds more, most of them easily forgettable. READ
Sept. 21, 1938, was shaping up to be just another gray day on the North Fork for 5-year-old Verna Campbell.
Her Wednesday morning at the newly built Pulaski Street School went along like any other day, from what she can remember.
In Riverhead and across the Northeast, no one appeared to be fazed by reports of a hurricane speeding up the East Coast. School children like Ms. Campbell and then-high school junior Lewis Tomaszewski were sent to school as usual, because experts believed the storm had missed the southern states and was headed out to sea.
That morning’s New York Times editorial only boosted people’s confidence. The editorial hailed the U.S. Weather Bureau’s “unparalleled warning system” for alerting the public to inclement weather. The Times’ opinion piece focused on the hurricane that was expected to slam Florida, but turned eastward, avoiding landfall.
That same day, the bureau’s advisory out of Washington, D.C., made no reference to the hurricane, which even the most seasoned meteorologists assumed was destined to fizzle out in the Atlantic.
But by mid-afternoon, the wind had begun to pick up.
Mr. Tomaszewski remembers waiting for school buses to arrive to take the students home, watching through the windows as the hurricane struck.
“You could see these trees falling,” Mr. Tomaszewski — now 92 years old — told the News-Review.
In her kindergarten class, Verna Campbell and her classmates watched as the storm whipped through the nearby cemetery.
“I was so frightened,” Ms. Campbell recalled. “The sky was gray and eerie and very terrifying. I wanted so desperately to go home.”
Not long after that, the hurricane that would become known as the “Long Island Express” unleashed its fury on the East End.
Seventy-five years later, that hurricane — known officially as the New England Hurricane of 1938 — has gone down in the record books as one of the most powerful and costliest storms ever to hit the region.
It slammed into the Northeast as a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds gusting to more than 120 mph, toppling nearly two billion trees, according to National Weather Service estimates. A wall of water estimated at 17 feet crashed over Long Island. The storm made landfall on the South Shore sometime between 2:10 and 2:45 p.m. As quickly as the storm struck, it was gone, barreling across Long Island Sound into Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts within hours.
As many as 700 people were killed.
“Homes were washed away, roads were washed away, Long Island Rail Road tracks were washed out, any of the fishing industry out here out east is gone, the apple crop was destroyed, a lot of livestock and farming was destroyed,” National Weather Service meteorologist David Stark said in a recent interview. “This was a very powerful, very destructive storm no matter how you look at it.”
Speed was partly to blame for the devastation, Mr. Stark said.
The hurricane traveled as fast as 60 mph up the coast — faster than any other storm in recorded history — after it got caught in the jet stream.
Without modern-day technology like satellites and radar, Long Island was caught off guard.
“Back then we were relying on data from ships going across the Atlantic,” Mr. Stark said. “They were thinking it was a tropical storm at that point. They didn’t really see [its] actual strength.”
Westhampton Beach bore the brunt of the hurricane’s force. The village area was flooded under eight feet of water. A movie theater filled with customers enjoying a matinee reportedly was lifted off its foundation by the storm’s waves and carried two miles out to sea, where it sank – drowning all inside.
While the damage in Riverhead was nowhere near as severe as in Westhampton Beach, the town suffered the “most savage storm in years,” according to an article in the County Review. The Peconic River overflowed its banks and tossed boats moored there — including a massive dredge — onto the shore, the article states.
More than 100 trees fell at Riverhead Cemetery and buildings like the Suffolk County Historical Society, the county courthouse, the elementary school on Roanoke Avenue and the high school on Pulaski Street were damaged, according to the article.
A group of “Riverhead lads” also managed to save the life of a woman trying to row across inundated Westhampton Beach, the newspaper reported.
In a special edition filed one week after the disaster, the County Review reported that at Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue the eponymous steeple was lost and a hole was punched through the roof. The church was left a “sorry looking spectacle,” the article states.
On Roanoke Avenue, barns, sheds and garages were blown down and some residents were still without water or electricity one week after the storm.
Along Sound Avenue, fruit was stripped from trees and the belfry and spire of Sound Avenue Hall were knocked down.
Ms. Campbell, now 80, recalled the damage she saw in her neighborhood after she returned home safely with a friend’s parent and the storm had fully passed. She was devastated to find that her favorite maple tree had been struck down by lightning. The tree had symbolized stability to her young mind, Ms. Campbell said.
It took until her teenage years for her to get over her fear of storms, she said.
Mr. Tomaszewski’s family was lucky; their Calverton farm suffered practically no damage in the hurricane.
“It was more the people by the bay. They got hit hard,” he said.
John Yakaboski, who recently turned 100, also recalled the substantial destruction the Express wreaked on the East End.
“That was a bad one,” he said in a brief interview from his Calverton home. “A couple weeks later we took a ride to Westhampton Beach; the seaweed was 20 feet high on the telephone pole.”
A private study done by a risk management company in 2008 showed the storm brought unparalleled destruction to the East End. The damage was equivalent to an F3 tornado, according to the study.
The storm caused $620 million in damage at the time, Mr. Stark said, or roughly $18 billion today. He added that if the 1938 hurricane hit today, it would cause an estimated $41 billion in damage.
Ten times more people were killed by the Long Island Express than by Sandy.
Last year’s storm brought winds near 80 mph, but Mr. Stark said Sandy’s winds stayed below hurricane force across most of Long Island.
The storm of 1938, by comparison, had sustained winds 20 to 30 mph stronger than Sandy’s most powerful gust.
And Sandy’s historic surge that swamped downtown Riverhead was still at least three feet lower than the tide brought in by the 1938 storm.
Meteorologist Stephanie Dunten at the National Weather Service station in Taunton, Mass., said that while other storms may share similar wind speed, storm surge or pressure readings, no other hurricane in the region’s recorded history has combined the different elements to create such a powerful storm.
“All the different storms have bits and pieces of it, but this one has everything,” she said. “It just baffles me.”
Weather experts say the historic nature of the 1938 hurricane’s power means few storms can match the destruction of the Long Island Express.
But storms like Sandy prove that the threat — however small — of a powerful hurricane always looms.
It’s never too early for area homeowners to prepare for the next big storm. So hear’s a guide to everything from choosing the right insurance coverage to setting up a generator.
Review your coverage
Atlantic hurricane season officially began June 1 and ends Nov. 30, and the busiest time of the season is just starting, weather officials said. Last season’s superstorm caused $18.75 billion in insured property losses across the Northeast, a figure that does not include damage covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded nonprofit group.
Now, almost a year since Sandy ravaged the Northeast, many homeowners still find themselves paying for repairs that weren’t covered by insurance.
One of the first things homeowners should do to make sure they’re ready for this storm season is re-examine their policies, said Elizabeth Hanlon of Allstate in Riverhead.
“Understand what your policy covers,” she said.
Standard homeowner insurance policies cover damage due to fire, lightning, hail, explosions and theft, according to local agents. The policies do not cover flood damage, a major component of the most recent storm.
Instead, all primary flood policies are underwritten through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program, managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, explained Peter Sabat, senior partner at Neefus Stype Agency Inc. in Aquebogue.
A primary flood policy provides up to $250,000 of building coverage and $100,000 of contents coverage, subject to a chosen deductible, Mr. Sabat said.
A homeowner considering flood coverage should realize that there is a 30-day waiting period for a policy to take effect, unless a mortgage closing is involved, he said. So people who find themselves scrambling for generators, water and batteries in the run-up to a storm won’t also be able to quickly buy some flood insurance.
Neither standard homeowners policies nor the National Flood Insurance Program, however, cover flood damage to sewer systems, which can cause raw sewage to back up into homes. Ms. Hanlon recommends that homeowners who have experienced such problems before purchase sewer backup coverage as a separate policy or as an addition to the standard policy.
Another potential consideration for homeowners is that if a home is badly damaged in a storm, repairs or rebuilding will have to adhere to updated building codes. Standard insurance policies don’t take into account the increased costs usually associated with conforming to revised codes, Ms. Hanlon said. For example, an older house may need to meet updated electrical codes, she said. Customers can purchase what’s called an ordinance or law endorsement, another add-on, to cover the costs of updating to meet new requirements.
And residents shouldn’t forget to consider contents of the home.
Mr. Sabat and Ms. Hanlon both recommend that homeowners inventory their possessions, everything from televisions to jewelry and furniture, and write down all purchase prices, dates, serial numbers and receipts, according to the Insurance Information Institute website, iii.org. There are now several apps available for smartphones that can help homeowners in this task. Both iii.org and allstate.com provide links to these applications.
Ms. Hanlon said homeowners could also simply throw receipts in a fireproof box, as long as they do so consistently after purchases.
Stock up on essentials
With the right insurance in place, homeowners should head to the hardware store before the last minute to get storm necessities and the proper tools and materials for post-storm cleanup (and to avoid lines at the stores!)
Aside from a radio, flashlights and batteries, “the number one priority is the generator,” said Chris McBride, store manager at Carl’s Equipment and Supply Inc. in Riverhead. Most homes in the area need around 5,500 watts he said.
Make sure a generator is kept outside but protected from the elements, he said, and that the muffler is not facing the inside of the house — the exhaust can be deadly.
For gasoline-powered generators, homeowners should keep at least 10 gallons of gas on hand, he said.
Dead trees or limbs should be trimmed before the storm, to help minimize wind damage, said Chris Mohr, owner of Chris Mohr landscaping in Cutchogue.
“Trees are the most dangerous thing during a hurricane,” he said.
You also want to put away or tie down anything, from lawn furniture to barbecues, that could get swept up and blown into the home, he said.
After it’s over
Once the storm has passed, assess the home for any damage, but be sure to call an insurance provider before making any repairs, Ms. Hanlon, the insurance agent, said.
“You’ve got to know the steps you need to take when making a claim,” she said. “You don’t just start fixing things.”
You can make emergency repairs to prevent further damage, such as removing a tree from a home, she said. But homeowners should call insurance providers for an assessment right away. People who took to fixing things immediately after Sandy sometimes found they got less money from their claims than they might have, she said.
When it comes to the yard, water anything that may have been hit by salt water, keeping in mind that salt spray can make its way inland in high winds, Mr. Mohr said.
“The salt water kills the roots, he said.
He recommends applying gypsum, which draws out the salt, “and you may have to use it a couple of times,” he said.
White pines are very vulnerable to damage from salt spray, he said. Try to rinse off the spray as soon as possible to prevent browning. Often, the spray has only hit the needles and not the roots, so the tree can be saved – but it may take up to a year to see improvement, he said.
No storm has hit the East End with the same power since the “Long Island Express” hurricane smashed into the area 75 years ago with wind gusts as high as 186 mph and storm tides of 12 to 15 feet.
But weather experts say it’s not a matter of if another big storm will hit our region, but when.
“It’s as close to a guarantee as a scientist is willing to admit,” said Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College.
And while 2013’s hurricane season — which began in June — has been quiet so far with no major hurricanes developing, meteorologists say the season could still produce violent storms before it ends in late November.
“We’re only at halftime in the football game,” said Dennis Feltgen, meteorologist and spokesman for National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla.
In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association predicted an “active to extremely active” season this year, with between 13 and 20 named storms with winds above 39 mph and seven to 11 hurricanes — well above the seasonal average.
Though there have been nine named tropical storms so far this year, only two hurricanes have formed, Mr. Feltgen said.
The first, Hurricane Humberto, came to life off the coast of Africa last week. A second hurricane, Ingrid, dissipated after it hit Mexico over the weekend.
“Statistically, by the time we reach [Sept. 21] we should have had at least four hurricanes and one major hurricane,” Mr. Feltgen said.
Hurricanes have been slow to form this year due to a large mass of dry, stable air sitting over the eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa, which makes it hard for clouds to grow, he said. At least three tropical storms this year — Chantal, Dorian and Eric — began in the African tropics but were snuffed out by dry air.
The hurricane season is half over in mid-September and the peak of the season is winding down.
“But that doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination we can’t catch up in a hurry,” Mr. Feltgen said. Last year, Hurricane Sandy was a late-season storm that went on to cause more than $64 billion in damage and knock out power in New York City and across Long Island.
We are now in an “active hurricane cycle” that began in the mid-1990s, Mr. Feltgen said, noting that such cycles generally last 20 to 40 years.
But in the long run, experts say, the North Fork may see fewer storms than in previous years due to global warming. Mr. Mandia said models show that climate change may lead to more El Niño seasons, which cause stronger upper-level trade winds in the Atlantic that disrupt hurricane formation.
However, when hurricanes do make it to our area, he said, they will likely be stronger. Hurricanes are fueled by tropical waters and become more powerful by drawing moisture from the warm seas up into the clouds.
A warmer climate means warmer sea temperatures, Mr. Mandia said. When Hurricane Sandy chugged up the coast, the water was one degree warmer than normal because of climate change, he said.
Sandy would have caused damage across Long Island even without global warming, but Mr. Mandia said the hurricane was “definitely made worse” by the warmer water.
Rising sea levels and denser populations on the North Fork also mean storm surges will affect more people. The worst-case surge from a category 1 storm would turn Orient into an island by cutting off Route 25 near the causeway, similar to what happened during Hurricane Sandy, according to a surge inundation map by the New York State Office of Emergency Management. In a Category 2 storm, parts of Greenport would also be flooded and cut off from the rest of the town and in a Category 3 hurricane — the same category as the Long Island Express — the village would be submerged, the chart shows. Southern sections of Shelter Island would disappear under the waves while farther west, residences around Peconic Bay in Flanders, Jamesport, Aquebogue and Riverhead would be completely swamped.
“We’re only making ourselves more like sitting ducks if we continue to warm the planet and cause seawaters to rise,” Mr. Mandia said.
He advised residents to be prepared to live without modern conveniences like power or gas for a week or two in the event of a powerful storm.
While those inland will not be affected by the higher storm tides, those who enjoy life along the coast will suffer damage when the next Long Island Express hits.
“I take my kids to the beach and I see the mansions on Dune Road,” Mr. Mandia said. “I look at all those and I think, ‘Borrowed time, honey. Borrowed time.’ ”