Focus on Nature: 1938? That was one heckuva hurricane

The recent visit from Hurricane Irene reminded me of the giant of all hurricanes, the now famous ’38 hurricane. I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating.

When the hurricane struck I was in high school in Southold. It had poured rain all that day and the ground was soft, making it easier for trees to be blown over — but I’m getting ahead of my storm.

In those days there was one school bus driven by J. Henry Wolf that picked us up along the Main Road. My sister and I had to walk a mile and a quarter each day to catch it. We carried our brown paper lunch bags with us and on the way always had to sneak a goody Mother had put in for lunch. The bus reminded you of a toy-box affair with no rounded corners and no sweeping curves. Kids were continually opening the windows, and that angered “J. Henry,” who always hollered “Close those windows!”

There was a big handle on the door that, when pulled, opened and closed the door. One time when the bus was loaded with kids, he pulled over to the side of the road. (We knew JH was a champion tobacco chewer.) He swung the door open and spit this gob of tobacco juice out the open door, as all the kids booed, whistled and moaned, and then the bus went back on the road again.

The day of the hurricane I was in study hall and the view I remember was from the window that looked out on Oaklawn Avenue. There’s still some of that old Southold High School building there, but all the new buildings that have since gone up around the original building dwarf it today. It just so happened they were putting a new roof on the school, and the roof was only half done when the storm hit and it went scurrying across the ball field, tossing 2x4s and roofing material in a thousand directions.

We watched the great elm trees that lined the streets slowly go down, each one finally resting on its side with a huge clump of dirt clinging to its roots. Clumps of dirt like those can still be seen in the woods around our home today. They lie there like tombstones marking the death of the mighty oaks that once stood straight and tall. You could tell the direction of the wind by the way the trees fell.

As the storm grew in intensity, our principal, Mr. Blodgett, thought it was time for the students to get home before the storm got any worse. So we kids piled into the bus with our driver at the wheel and headed west. All went well until we got about a half mile toward home and were stopped in our tracks by downed trees and branches that blocked our way. Then it was everyone for himself. I always liked walking, so the distance of five or six miles didn’t seem like too much of a problem to me — but what a problem it turned out to be for those of us who chose to walk.
Electric wires dangled everywhere. We climbed over and under the downed trees. Cars were held captive by downed trees in front and in back of them. All through the howling wind and rain, for me, there was a bit of excitement and adventure.

When you’re that young, danger is not for you. We crossed fields to make better time where there were no downed trees to slow you up and, unlike today, farm fields were everywhere. It was getting dark when I finally got home and could literally not see our house there were so many trees down. Was my mother ever glad to see me!
From that first day after the hurricane passed, it was cleanup. My dad had Uncle Henry’s two-man saw and an ax that we proceeded to use to clear a walkway through the jungle of trees and broken limbs. I still have that two-man saw; it hangs on the wall as a remembrance of the ’38 hurricane.

There were so many trees down that my dad finally stopped cutting firewood sizes for the big wood stove. He just cut lengths that he, or should I say “we,” could carry. It made a formidable pile that later was cut up by a farmer’s buzz saw. It was a wicked piece of machinery with its three-foot, belt-driven blade that screamed at you as each piece of wood was pushed into its spinning blade.

I remembered how that belt-driven saw cut through the pile of my dad’s wood, so when we had to cut down 15 or more trees to make room when we were building our house, I shopped around and found an old buzz saw in a farmer’s junk pile. I don’t believe it had been used since that devastating ’38 hurricane. It was rusty and falling apart. I repaired it and with the help of Pete Kujawski, the farmer up the lane, and his power take-off from his International “H” tractor, we once again had a buzz saw singing every time we pushed a log into that swirling blade.

Back to the 1938 hurricane — the general public never saw the hurricane coming. It hit us on Sept. 21, 1938, and no one knew anything about it except for Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau. He predicted the storm but was overruled by the chief forecaster and the Weather Bureau experts (Allen, 1976). Later that day, the greatest weather disaster ever to hit Long Island and New England struck in the form of a Category 3 hurricane. It changed Long Island, New York and New England forever.

In the “History of Southold Town,” town historian Toni Booth says that in Southold the wind blew 100 miles an hour that day and 600 of Southold’s trees were uprooted.

Scott Mandia, physical sciences professor, speaks about the one positive aspect of the hurricane: “One positive economic outcome of the 1938 Hurricane was that it effectively ended the unemployment experienced near the end of The Great Depression. At that time most people were out of work and would gladly work for the standard wage of $2 per day. Because so much damage had occurred to homes and buildings and so many trees were blocking roadways, thousands of people flocked to Long Island in search of clean-up work and repair. In fact, more than 2,700 men were brought into New York and New England by Bell Systems just to repair the downed phone lines.”