A Conversation With Richard G. Hendrickson, a cooperative observer with the National Weather Service and lifelong Bridgehampton resident, who remembers the Hurricane of 1938, which ravaged the East End of Long Island 70 years ago this week, on September 21. He was in his mid-20s at the time.
I understand it was just eight years before the hurricane that you got involved in the weather service. Can you explain how you got into that?
I grew up on a farm here with my family. In my early years of high school, a friend of the family, Ernest S. Clowes roomed on Lumber Lane and used to walk northward over the rail road track that went to East Hampton, over the railroad track that went to Sag Harbor and would come up on a slight rise and from there on a hill, would gaze across the hills, waving with grain. And in the late evening that is what he would see, in the late summer, early fall – the sun setting over the fields waving with grain. It was a picture I would like to say no artist could paint, but it was Long Island … it was what any artist would describe as beautiful, spectacular – and it was that way since colonial times. Today it’s all houses, you can’
t see the fields.
This Mr. Ernest Clowes, a student of words, a man of history, who had written several books – one on how to get your product inland down to the seaport for shipping without using the railroads. Several others, including a pamphlet on weather and he summered with his brother on the East End of Long Island with his brother in a house that is long gone …
Ernest Clowes later lived on Lumber Lane, and would walk up, like I said, and he became quite a friend with my father in agriculture. I as a 17, 18 year-old was around and what evolved was the setup, at our Hillview Farm, of a cooperative weather station.
What is a cooperative weather station?
A cooperative weather station is a white box on four posts about four feet above the ground and in it are two thermometers in this white box, which is sheltered on all four sides. One takes the highest temperature of the day and another takes the lowest temperature that occurred the evening before. Also with it, a short distance away, is a copper and brass cylinder and that is about eight-inches in diameter and is about two feet long and in that is a smaller container. The inner container in the summer catches rain. In the winter that container is taken out and we catch the snow in the larger container, melt it and gather the water content. It usually takes 10 or 11 inches of snow to make one inch of water. These are our instruments. Other than that we have a weather vane, which tells the wind direction, we have a wind speed indicator, which tells the velocity of the wind.
In 1938 we only had the rain gauge and the thermometers. The velocity of the wind blew the rain gauge over. The wooden box lay flat on the ground. I don’t know at what time during the hurricane these things blew over, but I know the ground was exceedingly soft or mushy because it did not crack a single thermometer – they were both good. We did estimates and we looked at many containers still standing up and finally settled on an amount that is listed in the records for the amount of the rainfall during that hurricane. The wind velocity, I believe, has been over the years a little exaggerated. This hurricane, at that time, was the fastest moving hurricane that had ever been recorded in the world. I believe the wind velocity was somewhere between 100 and 115 or 120 at the most. Few people realize that during the hurricane there was a cyclone – the wind spinning in a circular direction, but only in a small area –
maybe 100 or 115 feet across. One of those, in the 1938 hurricane, is what pulled the Presbyterian Church Steeple in Sag Harbor, well over 100 feet high, right out of its socket at the base and dropped it in front of the church. There are many photographs of that scene. That is just one of the many odd things that occurred during the 1938 hurricane.
What are some of the other odd things you remember from the 1938 hurricane?
During the 1938 hurricane we had 25 to 30 milk cows and many chickens. We had 5,000 laying hens in the hen houses – we picked up about 4,000 eggs every day – out in the open field we had about 1,000 laying chickens that were going to be put in the laying houses. In September we were going to put them in a large house up by the barn, and there they would have stayed for the winter laying eggs. During the hurricane two of the large laying houses were destroyed. It happened around noontime. We have never seen, to this day, one of those chickens. They were laying hens – 150 in each building – where did 300 chickens go? Blown over the fields of Bridgehampton. We never found a single one. I don’
t know where they went.
Everything was obliterated and flat to the ground. Across the fields many of the trees in the hedge grove were blown flat. All the leaves were off the trees. You came into the morning to trees in late summer and after the storm it was like winter – the trees were stark naked, branches broken off, trees busted over, some of them the tree sticking up and all the limbs broken off as if this was a battlefield. Here, it was three acres where it had gone from late summer – foliage in the trees, flowers on the ground – to stark nakedness. Trees and cornfields blown flat, buildings destroyed, roofs off of houses. It was weather that had changed everything in a few hours, and we, and our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers – had never seen anything like this in our lifetimes. They had seen a northeast storm with high tide that blew a boat to shore, or a tree down, but they never lived or seen a condition on eastern Long Island in their lifetime where a hurricane blew just about everything flat … it was destitute – the roof was gone, the chimney was blown down, the orchard was gone –
no more apples. It was a scene that you can talk for hours about.
In your experience as a weather expert had you ever seen any storm cause so much damage?
No one has ever seen such a disaster. There was a man, Mr. Esterbrook, he was head of a pen company. He lived in Bridgehampton and rode the railroad to Manhattan each week. When he retired he was congratulated for spending a third of his life on the New York railroad. His house was a big white house next to the school. His wife had passed on and they had a woman from the islands – Jamaica or the Caribbean – who was his housekeeper. The morning of the 1938 hurricane we had the drizzle, the fog, once in a while a few raindrops and then the fog again, five-to-six mile an hour winds and it was very humid, oppressive. This lady spoke to a Mr. Halsey and said, “Mr. Halsey, this is like hurricane weather.”
A person who had been in them, a person who knew realized what was in the atmosphere and that we were in hurricane weather.
No one ever used the word hurricane until 1938. Everyone was more than upset. It was the Depression years. Everyone worked. It was several days before you could get to Sag Harbor – it was all blocked off. And many people had lost their chimneys, the very doors to their house, the front stoops blown off, a window blown out … it was destitute. My mother was very friendly with the man who started the Westhampton Beach Chronicle newspaper and his wife was drowned up there in Moriches, in the bay near Westhampton during the hurricane. They had been on the ocean beach and were trying to get home. The bridge was washed out and they swam across, but half way across the daughter turned around, “Mom, how are you doing?” She wasn’
Montauk was destitute. My wife at the time worked for the Southampton Town welfare department and she and Ms. Nesbit, who was the East Hampton Town nurse, were sent to Montauk with food and supplies. Nappeague Beach was completely under water. Montauk fishing village was obliterated and I mean that word as what it is truly meant to express. Many of the men, who were fishermen had not come back yet – some were found, some were not. It was a period that changed our way of life and what we knew, what we thought, what we wrote about. I wrote a book, “Winds of the Fish’s Tale.”
What are the chances of us seeing a hurricane in the near future?
The potential of eastern Long Island having another hurricane like 1938 or more severe – our chances are 100 percent. We cannot continue, summer after summer, with just a fall storm before the winter comes. There are many hurricanes that form every year off the east coast of Florida and as they migrate to the northwest, come across the ocean, some disappear, some intensify and in their period of intensification they come westward until they come to the Caribbean Islands. They disperse tremendously. They have a wide field to go to – to Mexico, Panama, out into the ocean, through Puerto Rico, Haiti – as we know this past week after watching [hurricane Ike] they can go right into the Gulf [of Mexico]. They thought, it will hit Florida. No, we think it will go to New Orleans, where they had the bad one. It might go to Texas, they said next, and go to Galveston. Get your history book out and read about the hurricane around 1910 that killed hundreds and hundreds … We are going to have another hurricane. If you live the next 100 years you will probably experience two or three of them. We have polluted the stratosphere and because of that we have had warmer weather in the summer and milder weather in the winter and the potential of having heavy precipitation in the summer time increases– if not more rains, maybe they will be a little heavier than they have been in the past – you’
ll notice your basement floods a little easier, your roof might leak a bit. We are in a period in the cycle of global warming. We have polluted our stratosphere with our big factories and it will happen.Â