Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski said on Friday that we have no control over hurricanes, however we do have control over how we prepare and respond. This is the 70th anniversary of the “Long Island Express,” the 1938 hurricane that ravaged the East End from Westhampton to Montuak. To this day it still ranks as one of the top ten most devastating hurricanes in history.
The town board held a special work session to announce the release of their annual hurricane guide and to warn everyone about what could happen if such a disaster were to occur today. Given that development on the oceanfront and on the East End in general has grown leaps and bounds over what existed 70 years ago, both the increase in loss of lives and the economic impact in terms of damage is not hard to imagine.
“Our goal,” said Graboski, “is to reach all of our residents and visitors with information that we feel is of vital importance for people to best be equipped to protect themselves in the event of a severe hurricane.”
She said one of the biggest challenges the town faces is the “it’s not going to happen here” mentality and that people don’t take the threat seriously enough.
A number of special guests attended Friday’s work session, including two survivors of the1938 storm. One of them, 95-year-old Richard Hendrickson of Bridgehampton has been a cooperative observer for the National Weather Service for 75 years.
He said that in the business, they don’t consider the 1938 a top-notch hurricane.
“It was bad,” he said, “there were huge holes in the forest, ships lost at sea.”
Hendrickson said if such a storm were to hit the area today, the damage from the 1938 hurricane would pale in comparison to what might happen. Part of that has to do with changing weather conditions like a warmer ocean, which produce more intense storms, and also the speed of tropical disturbances.
The 1938 hurricane moved from the coast of North Carolina on a Wednesday at 8 a.m. at a speed of 110 miles per hour to the coast of Long Island. A mere seven hours later the hurricane came on land at a speed of 50 miles per hour.
“It was the fastest forward moving tropical disturbance ever recorded in the world,” said Hendrickson.
He said if the same storm hit the area today, it would not move as fast. It more likely would hit land at a speed of 25 miles per hour and would just sit, wreaking havoc on the area for hours. He said the difference in terms of damage would be “tremendous.”
“It would do doom to all our shorefronts and ponds like Georgica. The hundreds of mansions and bungalows would be devastated,” he said, “yards deep in water. There is no place for our oceans and bays to go except for over land.
“It would be a picture no artist could ever paint.”
Hendrickson asked, “How many of you know [that in 1938] the ocean came through Sagg Pond, across Montauk Highway and went in Poxabogue? This happened before, it will happen again.”
Mayor of Westhampton Beach Conrad Teller also survived the “Long Island Express.” He recalled how he was told to leave school and go over to where the village hall is now located. After only “a while,” the children were let loose. His mother found him as he was walking down the street and they went to look for his father, who was Chief of Police at the time. They were told he was at the beach, but that they weren’t “allowed to go down there.”
“We got down to the beach, and they said you can’t go there, the water is up over the cars on Main Street,” said Teller.
He said he remembered trees down and seeing the wreckage. He recalled his father when he returned three days after the storm.
“He said the first wave was a foot high,” said Teller. “The second wave came up over the telephone poles. He ended up on a rooftop with 18 other people in Quogue and finally made it back to the village.”
Dr. Stephen Leatherman, Chair professor and Director of the International Hurricane Research Center in Miami, Fla. was also on hand Friday.
“Hopefully, we’ll never have to use this manual,” he said.
Leatherman echoed many of Hendrickson’s points, but also touched on the geography of the East End that in and of itself, make these types of storms that much more dangerous.
“The problem is after the hurricane. No power is virtually guaranteed. You have to store up things like ice and water. It will be some time before the lights come back on. That’s another point of geography; you’re down island quite a ways. It will take time and trees will be down,” said Leatherman.
Supervisor Linda Kabot reminded everyone that it was important residents do not suffer from “hurricane amnesia.”
“Gloria is marked in my memory,” said Kabot. “What happened to the beautiful streetscapes, to all of the sidewalks and signage and then along Dune Road. The recovery period was at least two weeks.”
The 2008 Southampton Town Hurricane Guide is available at local libraries, post offices and municipal buildings.
Top Photo: The John Jermain Memorial Library after the 1938 hurricane.