AFTER THE STORM
September 22, 1938 — the day after the great hurricane – was perfect flying weather. Bright, benign, its fineness mocked the destruction everywhere, as if dancing on the graves. It was a day of frantic activity, most people only groping at what had to be done. There was no plan because no storm of this force had struck Long Island in over a hundred years.
Westhampton had the worst of it. The storm center passed right over the village, killing or injuring one in every five residents and destroying nearly half the property value. The country club became a morgue with corpses propped against overturned chairs and lit by candles so their loved ones could recognize them.
With all the bridges out, the ocean beaches were cut off. All available aircraft were directed to search the shore for survivors or bodies. From the airfield between Westhampton and Riverhead, an aviator and his companion took off in a single-engine Fairchild. Below them, two derailed passenger trains lay askew beside the tracks. Further on, the golf course was a world of mud, strewn with parts of houses, furniture, dishes, toilets, bath tubs, clothing, radios, bedding, all the baggage of life. On the twelfth fairway sat a forty-foot motor yacht, intact and defiant.
Amid the devastation, men were clearing fallen trees and abandoned cars from the roads. What traffic could move was collecting at roadblocks where the state police, their distinctive hats visible from the air, were turning back all but residents and business owners. Martial law was in effect.
At the beach the Fairchild turned west, flying low and just maintaining air speed. The sky had shed its August funk and turned a rich blue. The ocean matched it but for a streak of green over the outer bar and the fugitive white of the scud beginning to crown some waves. The bay was flat, a sheet lying on the bed with a few wrinkles that a good pull would eliminate. A half dozen ducks crossed over the water in military file, southeast to northwest.
The hurricane plowed a number of inlets through the beach. Swelled by the new moon tide and storm surge, the ocean washed over the barrier island all along its length. In most places, the water retreated with the falling tide, but in some, the concentrated wind-driven waves breached the island and cleaved a broad inlet that joined bay and ocean. There the shore was no longer – now it was instead part of the great salt-water cloak that covers most of the globe.
Beneath the wing was the Westhampton beachfront that had been dotted with houses until the wind and sea took them away. The emptiness was stunning. A surviving home stood on its pilings like some desert outpost, stark and battered. Beyond it, nothing.
These cottages, these great houses, these seats of family and joy, were all of them gone. There was an inlet 400 feet wide where the Cashman house and the Quantuck Beach Club had stood. The Jarvis house was swept away as if it had never been there, its only traces the driveway and a new sink that was never installed. The Carter house, the Brown house, and scores of others had just disappeared. The West Bay Bathing Pavilion, a three-story structure with 200 lockers, a pool, gift shop and tea room, was a husk surrounded by debris like crumbs on a table. Next door, nothing was left of the Surf and Dune Club Hotel. All gone.
It was only too easy to imagine the beach houses straining, creaking like a boat’s hull, tilting first a little, then far over, and finally cracking apart and collapsing. One could envision their broken timbers swirling about in the boiling waters before being dispersed to join the great fleet of detritus retreating from the debacle. Equally easy was it to imagine the fate of the occupants.
Wreckage was everywhere, but the tide was high, covering much of it. Boats were where cars should be and cars where boats should be, though mostly there was nothing. Conscious of their mission, the pair in the aircraft scanned carefully for survivors or corpses, but saw none.
It was the last fragrant day of summer. An easy sea breeze drove a playful surf on to the ocean shingle and raised scattered ripples on the bay, making the sunlight dance and sparkle, indifferent to the previous day’s rampage. Nature had no memory, it seemed. The same sea that devoured all in its way less than twenty-four hours before now enticed, a secure and placid playground.
Along the barren shore, gulls and terns dove crazed upon small bait driven to the surface by a school of bluefish. The remaining dune, carpeted in beach grass, was soft green showing the first trace gold of its seasonal turn, except where a cloud of migrating butterflies swathed it in black and orange. The ocean was the deep blue of a sailor’s winter blouse, the bay but a shade lighter. The rare light peculiar to the place, the light that had drawn artists for over half a century, bathed all in its lambent glow, at once ethereal and defined. The aviator turned to his companion and said, “This is how it must have looked in the beginning.”