"The Long Island Express"

"The Long Island Express"

Usually the great Atlantic hurricanes are not felt severely in the northeastern United States. In fact, severe hurricanes rarely strike the Atlantic coast north of New York City. Tropical storms either move inland long before reaching New England or swing back into the Atlantic. But few people will forget the great storm of 1938.

On September 21, 1938, when the storm first struck New York, it was not technically a hurricane, for its winds registered only sixty—five miles per hour. Then, when it moved on to Long Island, the winds quickly surged to 110 miles per hour, and the storm was nicknamed "The Long Island Express." A short time later the Blue Hill Observatory near Boston recorded winds up to 180 miles per hour!

Shore areas were hit hard, with Providence and Narragansett Bay serving as central targets for the hurricane. At Providence the water climbed thirteen feet above predicted levels and coursed through the business district at depths of over eight feet. The waters rose very rapidly; in one instance a man crossed the street in ankle—deep water to rescue a boy stranded on top of an automobile. Upon his return no more than two minutes later, the water had reached his chest!

The wind continued to whip the land at a velocity of over 200 miles per hour. It carried salt water so far inland that, in an area of Vermont 120 miles from the sea, windows were whitened by oceanic salt.

Acres of trees were uprooted and, along with telephone poles, lay on the ground like scattered matchsticks. Automobiles were destroyed by the thousands. Houses were flattened as though crushed by steamrollers. People were killed outright by pieces of glass, bushes, and sticks, all of which flew through the air like bullets. One war veteran remarked, "It sounded like I was back in combat." In a way he was correct, but this time the enemy was the elements.

When nature's wrath was spent, the toll was about $350 million in damage and destruction, including 26,000 autos, 20,000 miles of electric wire, and more than 200 demolished homes. Nearly three million trees were uprooted or splintered, and beyond all that the storm took more than 680 human lives.

It was the first severe hurricane to strike New England in modern times. Had the people appreciated its peril, many of the deaths could have been prevented. Since then a much improved warning and protective system has been set up. There have been at least four major storms since 1938, but none has exacted such a toll.

With a perverse kind of humor nature finds time to jest and play a few pranks, even in the face of such destruction. In one instance a two—story house was blown end over end for a distance of half a mile. When it finally came to rest, upside down, not a single windowpane had been broken. In the same storm the sea swept away a house containing a man's wooden legs. Both were found a week later, twenty miles away, lying together on the sand and still usable!

One survivor returned to his homesite and found his house about 200 yards from his lot. It was sitting on the foundation vacated by another house, but facing in the opposite direction. Inside the house all lamps were still on the tables, and a water jug, which he had placed on the kitchen sink, had not spilled.

A homeowner from Westhampton Beach has become a legendary figure of the 1938 hurricane. It seems that when his mail arrived early on the morning of September 21, he received the new barometer he had ordered from a major New York sporting goods store. Unwrapping the package, he marveled at the instrument but found it registered hurricane. He was outraged at the idea that his latest—model barometer was already malfunctioning. He tapped and shook the barometer, trying to get it to work properly, but the needle remained stuck on hurricane. Thoroughly provoked, he wrote a most disagreeable letter to the sporting goods store, rewrapped the barometer, and returned it along with the letter. He then marched directly to the post office and mailed it. To add to his relentlessly bad day, when he returned home, his house was gone!

The most ruthless force of destruction that occurred during this great hurricane was not the result of nature's fury but the work of humans. After the storms had subsided, along came the looters. A witness, marooned on the third story of an office building in Providence, observed the working of the plundering mob. He watched as the looters arrived: swimming, wading, and in boats. Rising out of the water, they entered through demolished store windows. At first there were only a few, but soon they came in hordes. They were brazen and insatiable; swarming like rats, they took everything they could lay their hands on. A few policeman came by in rowboats, looking for people who needed help. The looters, knowing they outnumbered the police, just continued with their work of destruction. When they had finished, not a single item of consequence remained in any of the markets. Man was again the final destroyer.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth