In 1938 a junior meteorologist called Charlie Pierce at the United States Weather Bureau warned his superiors that there was a hurricane on its way to Long Island. The chief forecaster over ruled Charlie, and the hurricane that became known as The Long Island Express barreled into Long Island and New England at 3:30pm on 21 September 1938.
In 1938 there were no weather satellites and the storm had been tracked manually from the coast of Africa to the Bahamas. The storm was measured as a category five, but was expected to veer out to sea before it reached the northeastern coast of the United States, which is what usually happened with these storms. Weather forecasters tracked its progress and strength and early on the 21st September the storm was a category three and sitting off Norfolk, Virginia.
The storm did not curve back out to sea, but was held to the coast by a high-pressure system to the east of it. Instead it continued northwards to Long Island, traveling forwards at seventy miles per hour, an unheard of rate of forward progress. This speed led to its name, The Long Island Express.
The rate of forward motion of the storm system combined with the wind speeds of the hurricane itself meant that the effective ground speed of the wind when the storm hit were in excess of one hundred and eighty miles per hour.
The autumn equniox was also a time of higher than usual tides, and the storm hit at high tide increasing the size of the storm surge and the subsequent flooding.
Waves of over fifty feet in height pounded the coast with such force that they were recorded on seismographs at Fordham University in New York City. The flooding was up to twenty-five feet deep and spread over a large area from Cape Cod all along the Connecticut coast. Coastal areas were most affected, but flooding stretched inland for several miles. Further flooding occured when when rivers burst their banks due to the rain associated with the hurricane.
The immediate effects of the storm were loss of life and property. Entire families were washed away with their houses, it is estimated that seven hundred people died and seven hundred more were injured. Twenty-eight people died at Westhampton beach alone.
The loss of life would have been much higher but many of the summer visitors had just left with as the summer season ended. At the time beach parties to watch storms were commonplace, and many more people would have been exposed to the storm earlier in the year.
On the day after the storm coast guard Theodore Harris flew up and down the coast of Long Island searching for bodies, and reporting the massive property damage.
At Southampton only two houses remained standing, and in total over four and a half thousand homes were destroyed with a further fifteen thousand damaged. Farmers lost barns and livestock and crops were washed away or rotted in the fields from salt and water damage.Vegetation that survied the storm died afterwards from salt damage. Power and phone lines were totally destroyed, and many cars were washed away, often being found inland.
One the heaviest hit areas economically was Montauk. The fishermen lost boats, tackle, their houses and the road. The oysters and clams of the area were buried under the sand effectively wiping out that years harvest. The storm came close to wiping out the entire community through the damage that it did.
The storm changed the geographical face of Long Island and Connecticut. Some inlets were filled with debris by the storm, others were filled with debris by the army, and twelve new inlets were formed. The Moriches inlet was substantially widened, and the Shinnecock inlet was formed. These changes in the existing geography of the inlets have ongoing effects today changing beach erosion and sand settlement patterns along the entire Long island Coast, leading to a threat to homes on the Fire Island coast as they lose sand faster than it is replaced.
An early warning would have saved some of the lives lost, but not all. The extent and power of the storm was such that the property damage and flooding would still have occurred. By strange coincidence the local theater had been showing the film “Typhoon” a few months earlier, and the locals agreed, ” It couldn’t happen here”.
Time magazine has estimated that the Long island Express was the sixth most costly hurricane in history. The unfortunate truth is that if the same storm were to hit the same area today structural losses would be far higher than they were then as the area is now far more developed, but many lives would probably be saved due to better early warning systems and higer building standards.