Voice of The Storm

Survivors of the Hurricane of 1938 recall the wind's haunting harmonic scream, the houses destroyed, the lives lost. 

"Hurricane of the Century." "The Wind That Shook The World." "Death Toll." — These are a few of the headlines that appeared in East Coast newspapers 80 years ago this September in the aftermath of a category-three hurricane that rained devastation on the unsuspecting Northeast.

The Hurricane of 1938 left lasting marks on the landscape of the East End. The force of the surge created 10 new inlets on the South Fork. The steeple on the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor toppled to the ground. Montauk temporarily became an island as the Altantic Ocean to the south and the bay waters to the north met at Napeague. Many people across Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island lost their homes and nearly 100 lost their lives. 

Stories of the wreckage still strike fear into the hearts of those who anxiously anticipate another storm of such magnitude. Acknowledging the anniversary of “the great wind,” we shine a light on current conversations about hurricane preparedness as hurricane season approaches.

The morning of September 21, 1938, was misty. Thunderstorms the night before had faded into a cloudy dawn. The fields were soggy, and the air hung close with humidity. Life on the East End went about as normal—families ate breakfast, parents dropped their children at school, boats left Three Mile Harbor and Promised Land for the day’s catch. 

Some took notice of the moody weather. Some did not. The clouds stirred, the light dimmed—most interpreted it to be nothing more than an approaching northeaster,  a seasonal storm that typically passes without much incident. But by noon, the sky had gone dark and there was a strange feeling in the air. A few of the old hands at the Amagansett fish factory knew something bad was coming, and turned their boats around. Uneasy, a woman from the West Indies who was working as a maid in East Hampton told her employer it felt like “hurricane weather.”

The word hurricane itself has its origins in the Arawakan languages of the Caribbean. Juracán, as it was adapted phonetically by Spanish colonists, was the deity of chaos and disorder who was believed to control the weather. 

There are several accounts that detail, hour by painful hour, what took place as the afternoon advanced. By 2 p.m., the wind had picked up to 45 miles per hour. The schools at Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor closed and parents were urged to keep children inside. Still, it wasn’t clear how bad it would get. By 3 p.m., the power began to go out, as reports of massive flooding in Connecticut and Rhode Island came over the radio. Barometric pressures fell to unprecedented depths. It became clear that something extraordinary was happening. By 4 p.m., winds had reached their peak, at around 100 miles per hour. They wouldn’t slacken for hours.

People watched in horror as barns were lifted off their foundations and blasted into fragments. Fully grown men were plucked off their feet by the wind and thrown violently back to the ground. One survivor remembers “unseen fingers” that “seemed to pick shingles off of roofs and peel entire sections off of houses, lifting them into the sky.”

It is true that Montauk was temporarily cut off from the rest of town at the height of the storm. Two days after the storm passed, cars made their way cautiously through a reported eight to ten inches of standing water. East Hampton Star archive. 

Chimneys and telephone poles, torn by the wind, flew like wrecking balls through the air, destroying everything in their path. In Southampton, the Dune Church was nearly obliterated, with pieces of the roof strewn a mile down the road. The heavy steel safe at the Southampton Beach Club went missing; its disappearance was thought to be the work of looters, until it was found, several days later, at the bottom of Lake Agawam.

By 5 p.m. almost all the large, old trees had been knocked over. The great elms of East Hampton’s Main Street lay like fallen soldiers, in tatters, in the road or on top of picket fences that had been crushed like toothpicks. An estimated 30,000 trees were lost on the South Fork, many landing on houses and cars, their roots facing the sky. 

The storm’s might was felt far and wide. Westhampton was hit hard; the area near Dune Road lost over 200 houses and 29 people were killed there. On the North Fork, the Greenport movie theater was blown down. Block Island was almost completely underwater.  

Potato farmers sustained some of the heaviest losses. Nearly 50 barns went down between Water Mill and Wainscott. And because the sea spray had been driven inland, salt water had rained down on the fields, poisoning the crops. Mecox cows were seen happily licking at salt crystals that had formed on fence posts and trees.

Some of the most lasting damage was inflicted by the tidal surge that rearranged shorelines and waterways. The most dramatic of these rearrangements was the creation of the Shinnecock Inlet and the appearance of a strip of land connecting Cedar Point County Park to the Cedar Point Light, which once stood on an island. An estimated 90 percent of the sand dunes that protected the ocean beaches from the Atlantic were either swept away or blown inland, leaving the coast more vulnerable to erosion and future storms. 

Yet with all of this mayhem, few people heard anything other than a single, overwhelming sound—a sound that Ernest Clowes of East Hampton dubbed “the voice of the storm.” It was remarked on by many. They described it as a combination of the deep, droning bass of the sea, the high-pitched screaming of the wind through the trees, and some third hard-to-describe thing—a steady, almost organ-like hum of such intensity that “it seemed as if the whole atmosphere were in harmonic vibration,” as Clowes put it. No sound rose above it. “Believe it or not,” said a woman whose house was barricaded by toppled trees, “I never heard one of them go.”

Families sought refuge in larger houses that seemed less vulnerable. One survivor, who was a young boy of about 10 that September, remembered taking shelter with a group of some 60 others in the Beales’ famous Grey Gardens near Georgica Beach. “We all sat together in the upstairs bedrooms eating tinned tuna fish. When it was all over, there was at least two feet of sand in the living room.”

A sedan somehow ended up in litter-strewn Town Pond, East Hampton.

It is difficult to know how accurate some of the stories are. Many verge on the unbelievable, although we would like to think they are true. One woman supposedly pulled four children from Gardiner’s Bay after they had gone in after the family dog (she saved the dog, too). A group of servants on a Southampton estate claimed to have escaped out a second-story window using a mattress as a raft. One survivor swore up and down that he saw two surly Norwegian sailors drinking pints of beer at the Montauk Manor bar, flood waters coming up around their ankles, acting as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. 

One of the most startling things about the hurricane was how unexpectedly it came and went. By 7 p.m., the worst was over. Winds slowed and waters ebbed. 

Still, with no power and the sky dark and growing darker, few emerged from their houses until morning, when they were met with an almost Dali-esque scene of chaos. All over town there were clearings where, just one day earlier, houses had stood. Trees were upside down and sideways, furniture and automobiles sat crumpled on sidewalks, while boats lay on their sides in cornfields like beached whales.

Everybody knew someone who was missing or dead. No one wanted to be alone. They were drawn together, gathering on streets and sidewalks in mourning and camaraderie. “For days,” Clowes wrote in 1939, “people simply milled about with awestruck faces, looking for companionship, comparing stories, seeking friends, even laughing a little with that irrepressible American reaction of ironical and slightly hysterical gaiety toward stunning loss.”

And then they began to rebuild. Neighbors helped each other clear brush and broken trees, and churches organized community meals and sheltered those whose houses had been destroyed. The fire department volunteers used their pumps to move water from firewells into the town water mains. For a time, the country club at Southampton was used as a makeshift morgue.

The weeks after the storm were not a happy time, but they did bring out the best in people. For a community that was often divided along class lines, the storm had a strangely equalizing effect. Rich and poor alike were grieving. People opened up guest rooms and collaborated on relief efforts. Long into the fall, bodies would wash up on the beach, and then everyone would gather again for a ceremony and burial. 

As is often the case when a terrible trial is shared—as in the Blitz, or Sept. 11—those who had gone through the hurricane felt united by it, and that feeling lingered for decades.

An estimated total of $24,691,800 in damage was done to private and public property in Suffolk County. Working families felt the brunt of it—fishermen, farmers, tradesmen, shop owners—some of whom could not afford to repair their stores or boats. In the winter of 1939, Robert Moses and a team of New York designers proposed a $15.5 million-dollar plan for coastal protection that called for the relocation of Montauk Highway and the building of barricades along the dunes. Though the proposal received a lot of media attention, it was quickly and strongly opposed by local governments. The Southampton Village Board was unanimous in rejecting the idea, saying that “such an elaborate plan was not necessary.” 

Guild Hall, two days after, was surrounded by wreckage and mud.

At first, some of the wealthier homeowners who had lost houses along the ocean chose not to rebuild, understanding that anything south of the highway was at high risk. But that determination didn’t last. Other, more pressing, worries filled people’s thoughts. By September 1939, Hitler’s army was marching into Poland, and within a few years the U.S. was at war, too. Slowly, the storm began to fade into memory. 

Today, if we think of the Hurricane of 1938 at all, it is usually to marvel at its dramatic novelty—“the day Montauk became an island” and all that. But the 80th anniversary this autumn should be taken as a sober reminder that hurricanes are cyclical in nature, and history is likely to repeat itself. 

Most of us have no idea how bad it really was. We have been through hurricanes, we boast, and they weren’t so terrible. A hurricane? It almost sounds like fun. But we feel this way only because we have been lulled into complacency by lesser storms. The next time there comes a Big One, and there will be a next time, it will be even worse. This is because in the 80 years since the disaster of 1938, Long Island has seen an unprecedented rise in coastal development, with billions of dollars poured into real estate along the most vulnerable oceanfront. If we get another category three, that coastal strip will be destroyed. The real estate industry is gambling against an inevitability.

People posed for the newspaper’s photographer by the roots of Main Street’s upended elms, to give a sense of scale. Power was out, phone lines were out, water mains had given way; this man and woman—who maintained their standards of tidy dress, despite the catastrophe—filled water pails at a spigot in the business district. East Hampton Star archive.

“It is human nature to diminish risk,” says David Rattray, the editor of The Star, who raises the alarm each year as hurricane season approaches. “It is the same way with the stock market. Somehow, even when we have seen it crash, we don’t believe it will ever happen again.”

Of course, up-to-date weather-prediction models will alert us to the approaching danger—and that will lessen the threat to human life—but the shock to the economy would be staggering. Howard Mills,  an insurance consultant who served for several years as New York State’s insurance superintendent, says that, according to the most recent projections, if the Hurricane of 1938 happened today, it would cause more than $70 billion worth of damage on Long Island alone. Insurance companies could go bankrupt. 

According to Mills, there are several practical steps a forward-thinking homeowner can take to minimize damage. One method is roof clips, which help keep the lid on during 120-mile-per-hour winds. He also recommends “hurricane-proof” garage doors and shutters to seal out the blast. “Once the envelope of the house is punctured at any point during the storm,” he says, “the roof pops off.” 

But, really, these things are like fighting a tidal wave with a teaspoon. While new technology may help us prepare ourselves, it won’t stop the wind when it starts to blow.  

 

Top: Looking north on Main Street—utter devastation to the village’s famous elms.

Nina Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about land preservation, Montauk ghost stories, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she graduated from Wesleyan University in 2016 and is now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can be found driving to the beach in her Volvo station wagon with her dog, Tucker, riding shotgun.