It was 1938. Adolph Hitler was threatening Czechoslovakia and the civilized world. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was preparing to fly to Germany to try to appease the dictator. But war clouds were gathering.
Yet, in New York, these momentous events suddenly almost became secondary. Temporarily. A hurricane was roaring up the East Coast threatening the lives of many Americans.
The Hurricane of 1938 , also called the Long Island Express and the Great Hurricane of 1938, swept away houses and people in its path. There were 700 deaths, 708 injured, 4,500 homes destroyed, 2,600 automobiles destroyed, livestock killed, $6.2 million in damage in eastern Long Island. Fifty lives were lost on Long Island on that day, the bodies laid out on the country club lawn in Westhampton.
Not that Adolph Hitler completely obscured the very big weather story that was enveloping our area. We still followed Hitler’s progress and the depressing capitulation of Chamberlain closely.
I was a 14-year-old high school student in the Bronx. I followed the news about Hitler avidly but I confess my memory about the big storm is a bit faint. I do recall a headline in the World-Telegram, the afternoon paper I was later to work for. It carried a story, my researcher found, describing 70 people huddled on two small boats on the beach in Saltaire Harbor, while “a hurricane was tearing the island apart.”
It was a Wednesday and I went to school, but the winds blew fiercely and we didn’t quite realize how devastating the storm was, although ash cans and assorted debris were blowing through the streets.
One positive side effect of the big storm was that , with an estimated 2 billion trees down, there was employment for thousands of men to help clear wreckage and clean up the stricken area. This was during the last days of the Depression so the opportunity to work was welcome.
A New York Times correspondent took a trip across northern Long Island. He said winds shifted his car and fallen trees blocked his progress. By the time he was halfway across the island, “the headlights cut barely 20 yards into rain-swept darkness.”
In Southold, correspondent Russell Owen reported, “chestnuts flew off a tree and through a home’s windows, riddling them like machine gun bullets.”
The intrepid reporter wrote: ” Where a well paved state highway ordinarily lay, now the Sound intervened in all its formidable majesty. Windswept water had isolated the tip of the North Fork.”
Tom Stevens, a Westhampton school child, later described “a solid, gray wall of water about 13 feet high, slowly but steadily devouring the dividing line between sky and grass. It was hypnotic.”
For news New York is like a vortex. Whatever is happening around the world seems to have repercussions here. It could be a natural disaster or a coup in a foreign country with many emigres in New York. It could be a violent crime or a scientific discovery.
Hurricanes make news too. And so do toll hikes and politics. But hurricanes are freaks of nature. Politics has nothing to do with them. It’s history all right but we are passive participants in it.
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