The Long Island Express

Written By: Guy Cheli

Long before Superstorm Sandy hit the New York area, a hurricane of great magnitude struck the east end of Long Island. On September 21, 1938 the most powerful storm ever recorded slammed across Long Island, leaving in its wake unimaginable death and destruction.

The forecast for Long Island that Wednesday morning was, “intermittent heavy rain and moderate wind gusts.” Rain had been falling on and off for several days, causing the ground to saturate and rivers and streams to already rise to their banks. Thankfully, forecasters predicted that the hurricane, now situated off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina would blow out to sea and just cause a little wind; or so they thought. Little did they know, the Cunard ocean liner Carthinia cruising past Hatteras reported an abnormally low barometric pressure of 27.85 inches and very high seas. Forecasters should have realized this information would suggest the storm would head due north and right up the east coast. Bear in mind, there were no television, radar or weather satellites at that time to warn of imminent danger; it wouldn’t have helped anyway, as the storm was building in strength and moving up the coast at an unheard of speed.

Experienced fishermen and farmers usually go by their instinct when it comes to weather. Subtle changes they notice, whether it be wind or water current or how the birds and animals act, can tell old timers all they need to know. It’s mentioned in Cherie Burns’ wonderful book, “The Great Hurricane 1938,” that Captain Dan Grimshaw turned his boat the Robert E. back to Fort Pond Bay in Montauk on that morning. The only forecast he had heard from his ship to shore radio was for “gale-force winds.” To a seasoned fisherman this prediction was not dangerous enough to stay at the dock. Fishing was a lucrative business and to miss a day’s catch would be hard to make up. Captain Grimshaw had a gut feeling something bad was coming. Some boats continued out, desperate for a payday; after all, fishing had been great lately. By the time he decided to turn the Robert E. back toward the harbor, winds were blowing 90 miles per hour and seas were mounting. Even more ominous was the barometric reading of 28.10.

The Hamptons were dotted with inland farms and seaside homes along Dune Road in 1938. Most residents were going about their daily routine on this unusually hot and humid first day of Autumn. To the local merchants it was business as usual. The tourists were gone since Labor Day and summer residents were closing up their homes for the winter. They had no way of knowing something powerful and dangerous had formed and was rapidly approaching. By lunchtime the sky had turned charcoal gray and the windblown sea was rising; only a preview of what was to come.

The Category 3 storm, dubbed “The Long Island Express,” sped up the coast at 60 miles per hour and slammed into Bellport, Long Island between 2:20 and 2:40 p.m., bringing with it 186 miles per hour wind gusts and mountainous waves. Westhampton, being on the immediate eastern edge of the hurricane, sustained the heaviest damage. With little or no warning, it was as if the people on shore were living through a disaster film. The first fifty- foot waves washed over the dunes around 3:00 p.m. destroying everything in their path. Some homes and families vanished, simply washed out to sea as if they never existed. Any structure left standing was uninhabitable. To make matters worse, the storm hit precisely at high tide. An astronomical high tide brought on by the Autumnal equinox and the new moon resulted in a fifteen-foot storm surge. Survivors at first thought this was a fog bank rolling in before realizing that they were actually seeing a tidal wave. This powerful wall of water devastated interior sections of Westhampton Village. Acres of crops were destroyed and thousands of livestock and poultry were drowned along with the loss of human life. Automobiles, furniture and tons of debris were swept miles inland. Main Street and most businesses were left under eight feet of water. Twenty-nine people were lost in Westhampton alone.

Further east, at Southampton, massive waves crashed through the barrier island and over Dune Road, creating what is now the Shinnecock Inlet. If you look at aerial photos soon after the storm you see a flat sand beach with no dunes and an inlet where there once was not one. The ocean and Shinnecock Bay are now one body of water: the storm changed the map of Long Island forever. Saint Andrew’s Dune Church on Gin Lane was severely damaged by wind and waves. The spires were knocked off and part of the building washed across the road into Agawam Lake. Thankfully, the building which dates back to 1851 as a lifesaving station was restored and rebuilt the following year. Constantine Rascoe lived through the storm as a young boy. “We were evacuated from Southampton Grade School. The wind was ferocious and it seemed as if every tree was crashing down around us. I’ll never forget that day.”

Out at Montauk, the old fishing village at Fort Pond Bay was the first to go. Built with spare lumber and old crates these primitive shacks didn’t stand a chance. More than one-hundred vessels were destroyed or lost and most fishermen were left homeless. At Napeague, the lowest and narrowest area in Montauk, the ocean swept over the highway and railroad tracks and into the bay. Survivors were now trapped on a shrinking island with nowhere to go but higher ground. When the engineer on the train to New York City could go no further he slowly backtracked to the station and allowed people to jump aboard. The survivors were then taken to Montauk Manor which reopened as a safe haven shelter. 150 miles per hour winds were pounding the tip of Montauk and three families were stranded at the lighthouse. The Head Keeper and his family hid in the basement of the Keeper’s house. Two Assistant Keepers and their families stayed in the tower surrounded by six-foot thick walls and safely rode out the storm. Montauk native Vinnie Grimes remembers that day. “When we went to school in the morning it was nice and sunny with no mention of any hurricane. Sometime during the afternoon all hell broke loose. By the time my grandfather came to get my brother and sister and myself there was water everywhere. All the roads were flooded and we couldn’t get to our house near Ditch Plains. My grandfather took us to Shepherd’s Neck Farm in the village to wait out the storm.”

This fast moving unnamed storm (hurricanes were not named until the early 1950s) raced across the Long Island Sound at an incredible rate, gaining more strength and causing even greater damage and loss of life in Connecticut and New England before finally dissipating over the Canadian arctic. “The Long Island Express” or “The Great Hurricane of 1938” left 800 dead or missing, damaged nearly 9,000 homes, wrecked or sunk 3,000 ships and caused $18 billion worth of damage in today’s dollars.

There has been much written about the “Long Island Express.” I write this story to educate the next generation of this incredible act of nature. Can we possibly imagine the devastation if this happened today? Next time you’re at the beach or driving along Dune Road, think about those fifty-foot waves a generation ago.