It was 1938, and few believed the fishermens’ warnings

08/26/2011 6:53 AM |

SUFFOLK COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY COURTESY PHOTO | The Main Street fish markets in Greenport after the 1938 hurricane.

Few believed the local fishermen who warned such yellow and red skies meant a major storm was on the way.

There were no National Weather Service advisories or evacuation plans. It made landfall with little warning and with sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour, strong enough to be classified as a Category III storm today.

The storm killed more than 600 people, injured more than 700 others and caused $308 million in property damage (an estimated $6 billion today), destroying and damaging thousands of homes.

It will 73 years ago next month when the epic hurricane that would later come to be known as the New England Hurricane of 1938 — aka the Long Island Express because of its unusual speed — blew through eastern Long Island and New England, leaving death and devastation in its wake.

Like some are predicting for Hurricane Irene, the massive eye of the storm — 50 miles wide — passed right over Long Island.


Gertrude Reeves of Orient, now 95, remembers well the day of the storm and those that followed. It was four days after the storm hit before she knew her mother and aunt hadn’t perished in the waters of Long Island Sound, aboard a New London-bound ferry. The storm knocked out power, so they had no way of communicating.

“My father and my uncle walked Sound Beach expecting to find their bodies washed up on shore,” Ms. Reeves said.

She was working as a school bus driver for the Orient Village School and, seeing signs of the storm, headed there to pick up students prior to the usual dismissal time.

“I was even more scared than they were,” Ms. Reeves said. So fierce were the winds as she drove the students to their homes that although she was flooring the accelerator, she couldn’t get the bus to move faster than 10 mph, she said.

She remembers watching a tin roof blow off the house of one student as his mother hustled to take him inside.

The sound of the wind was so fierce she couldn’t even hear the sounds of trees and utility polls falling, she said.

Because it had rained heavily for about 10 days prior to the hurricane, the ground was soft and the roots of even big trees easily lifted out of the ground.

For 30 days after the storm, she and her neighbors were without power. She managed with a tiny gas refrigerator in which she stored milk for all her neighbors’ children, she said.

Irene Wahl was among the Orient students on Ms. Reeves’ bus route.

“I can still see my mom rushing down the porch steps with her apron and hair blowing in the wind,” Ms. Wahl said. A shed that had housed the family’s ’36 Ford was gone, she said, while the car was “untouched, its beautiful blue surface sparkling in the sunshine,” surrounded by the shattered wood that had been the shed.

Leona Rhodes Hanwacker, now living in Carle Place, was a Greenport resident at the time and bound for New London on an earlier ferry. She arrived safely and remembers sitting with relatives watching heavy rains and winds.

“The wind was throwing chairs and flowerpots all over [and] we looked across the field and trees were falling like matchsticks,” she recalled. After a large tree took down power lines, they gathered inside with candles and oil lamps.

By bedtime, no one could sleep because of the din of the wind and fire truck sirens.

“The sky over downtown New London was bright red and smoky” at daybreak and they found “devastation everywhere,” Ms. Rhodes Hanwacker said.

Because the water in Long Island Sound and Plum Gut was so choppy, there were no ferries back to Greenport and they were hearing rumors that their hometown had been “blown off the map,” she said.

“Fear was an understatement. Our families were there,” she said. But her uncle and grandfather drove to New London “in the trusty old Studebaker” to bring them home.

“I still have my return [ferry] ticket,” Ms. Rhodes Hanwacker said. “Someday, maybe I’ll collect my return trip.”

Lettie Downs of Aquebogue lived near the Long Island Rail Road tracks on Voss’s Duck Farm and saw the steeple fall from Old Steeple Church on Main Road.

“It gave me the strangest feeling when I saw the steeple come down,” she said. “Things like that don’t happen, but it did.”

“I guess I felt like Dorothy in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ââ” said Verna Campbell of Riverhead. She was only 5 at the time, a kindergartner at the brick school building on Pulaski Street.

“I was so frightened,” she said. “The sky was gray and eerie and very terrifying. I wanted so desperately to go home.” A fierce wind was blowing the trees.

But when a friend’s father was able to get her home, she was devastated to find that her favorite maple tree had been struck down by lightning. The tree had always symbolized stability, Ms. Campbell said. It took until her teenage years before she got over her fear of storms, she said.

Shelter Island resident Albertus “Toots” Clark was aboard Harold Vanderbilt’s 150-foot yacht Vara, tied up at Preston’s Dock in Greenport, when the storm hit.

“We didn’t know it was a hurricane, but we knew that the wind was picking up,” he said. After hearing a report of storm damage on Fire Island, “that’s when we put the lines out” to secure the stern of the boat, he said. They had some special lines to run over to Brigham’s Dock across the way, but the winds were so heavy they couldn’t get the lines to the dock.

He and the other deckhands were able to hold the boat during the storm, but as the ropes slid through their hands, it pulled the skin off, Mr. Clark said.

During the period when the eye of the storm covered the East End, he looked over to the end of Hay Beach, where some of the largest trees on Shelter Island had stood.

“All you could see were stubs,” he said.

Another Shelter Island resident, Margaret Burns Payne, was shocked by the damage at her home. A grape arbor had collapsed on the back porch and a huge maple tree had fallen on the house. Her father, who worked at an estate in Dering Harbor, had walked most of the night to get home and had to climb over downed trees in the dark.

Her sister-in-law, Hazel Dickens, lived on Burns Road near the monastery and watched as her two children ran toward the home, only to see three large trees fall right behind them.

Her husband Kenneth’s sister, Constance Payne, was at the Greenport Theatre and had to leave when power was lost. Within minutes after she left the building, the roof collapsed.

Riverhead resident Bob Kaelin lived in Southold at the time and remembers seeing what looked like A-frame structures in a field. It was later that he realized they were rooftops from summer “shacks” that had exploded, he said.

At Camp Mineola in Mattituck, historian Norman Wamback describes a resident crawling on her knees to reach a neighbor’s house after gusts of 120 mph hit her home. It took the woman nearly an hour to travel what was normally a four-minute walk, he said. A two-car garage on another piece of property at Camp Mineola was destroyed while a vehicle was left undamaged.

Homes along Fay Court in Mattituck were obscured by fallen trees, Mr. Wamback said.

Marge Tuthill, now living in Narragansett, R.I., was a Greenporter at the time of the storm and remembers downed trees and poles and sparks shooting from fallen wires.

But her most significant memory was of her father, who owned a marina and dock building business in New Suffolk. He had stayed in New Suffolk to try to protect the marina. Late that night, the family heard a loud banging at the door and gathered there to see who might be making such noise. Her father had driven from New Suffolk, but couldn’t drive all the way to the house and had to walk the last part of the route. Because of the debris, he couldn’t be sure which house was his, so he knocked rather than using his key.

Another Shelter Island memory came from Ralph Trine, who now lives in Plant City, Fla. He recalls being with his classmates in an old wooden school building and being led to the high school building, part of which was made of brick. Several windows in the wooden building blew out just after the children were moved, he said.

Mr. Trine’s father had to battle heavy winds and rains to pick him up at school and he recalls the family being without electricity for about two weeks. But because they lived across the street from neighbors who had a windmill, they were able to have fresh water every day.

Local ice cream stores gave away their goods since they had no power to run the freezers, Mr. Trine said.

Estelle Wells Evans of Georgetown, N.Y., a Riverhead resident in 1938, remembers seeing a large elm tree on her front lawn with three large limbs “circling around independently” in the wind. As she approached a window in an east bedroom, it exploded and “fine slivers of glass flew.”

During the lull in the storm, while the hurricane’s eye was overhead, she remembers feeling like she was in a vacuum. The air was so still that breathing was difficult.

“The soaked soil quickly released the beautiful maples that lined Sound Avenue,” she remembers. “Their roots lay in rows as dominoes.” Her family lost 24 trees around their property and a neighbor’s garage on a cement foundation was moved several feet by the strong winds, she said.

Bill Albertson was an eighth-grade student in Southold that day and was among those fooled by the calm of the storm’s eye. He was walking on Town Harbor Lane when the winds resumed, but was able to make it to a neighbor’s home, where his family had taken refuge. His mother pointed out that 14 trees in his aunt’s yard had been destroyed and many windows had been blown out.

“The roof was wrapped around one of the trees and the old barn was flattened,” he said. But what brought him to tears was when his aunt pointed to the garage where his uncle’s car was and a tree lay on top of the building.

It meant he could no longer easily get to Greenport, “the place to be on Saturday nights.”

Frank McNulty of Laurel was readying a celebration of his 14th birthday when the hurricane arrived, and looking forward to ice cream, cake and gifts.

He recalls his grandfather having to bypass sections of Route 25 on the ride home from Mattituck High School. The road was blocked by fallen trees, he said. As they entered the house and went to close the door, the wind broke out a large pane of glass. The family sat down to dinner by candlelight, but they smelled gas and found that the refrigerator had sprung a leak, so they had to move outside.

“The good part was we had to finish all the ice cream,” Mr. McNulty said.

In the aftermath of the storm, he and his brother had to trek to a neighbor’s house to pump water until power was restored, he said.

It took weeks of cleanup after the storm, splitting wood from the fallen trees, recalled Richard Anderson, now of Virginia Beach, Va. His family commuted between homes in West Hempstead and Fleet’s Neck on the North Fork.

“We had so much split wood that it rotted before we could burn it up in the fireplace,” he said.

Patricia Sacks of Sarasota, Fla., a longtime Mattituck resident, was an eighth-grader at Hampton Bays School and had difficulty concentrating because she was “mesmerized by the large chandelier swaying back and forth in the high winds.”

She recalls that a family friend who had recently purchased a barometer thought it was broken because its readings were so low.

For years after the storm, Ms. Sacks said, she had nightmares of being trapped on Dune Road when a wave covered the highway.

“The wind was so strong, I had to crawl to the neighbors,” Jean Holman of St. Simons Island, Ga., said. Home was on Kerwin Boulevard in Southold. Tidal waves brought boats ashore and the chimney of her house was destroyed.

Although former Shelter Island resident Thomas Young was in Los Angeles at the time of the hurricane, he and his family returned home to find “a barren landscape with big stumps and raised sidewalks.”

The damage was so extreme that it “didn’t even seem familiar anymore,” he said. What was once like a “tunnel of trees” along Manhanset Road hasn’t yet returned to its former glory, said Mr. Young, who now lives in Murrells Inlet, S.C.

Emmy Case was a teenager with a junior driver’s license and had been sent by her mother to pick up her brother at Roanoke School and then get her father. So focused was she on her destination that she recalls being almost oblivious to the storm. When she went to West Main Street to get her father, he was gone, having walked home. She does recall having to drive on a sidewalk at one point to get around a downed tree, but said most of her neighborhood was spared the storm’s worst fury.

A neighbor on a nearby street, however, did see his garage damaged when the wind picked it up and then “down it came,” Ms. Case said. Still, compared with the damage she was hearing about on the South Fork, Riverhead was generally spared, she said.

“But because no one here had seen anything like that before, it really shook people up,” Ms. Case said.

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