The 1938 Long Island Express

It was 21 September 1938. The time was 10am, the place Long Island. Though the winds were strong, most people were not concerned because the previous day had been worse in that respect. Not much later, eighteen-year-old Arthur Raynor, a resident of Westhampton saw birds acting strangely, a fact he mentioned to his mother because it reminded him of a sequence in a film he had recently seen about a hurricane.

“One thing you never have to worry about on Long Island is floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and all those other things everybody not smart enough to live here worry about,” came the reply. However, as events that day would show, there was cause for concern. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the winds got stronger until they exceeded gale force. Although the weather reports were reporting a hurricane off the coast, no one became concerned at that time because bad weather was expected at that time of year.

It was not until 2:30 pm, and the first massive waves began to break over the dunes on the beach, that the community realised that they were in the direct path of a full-blown hurricane, which reached category 5 at its peak. The “long Island Express” as it came to be known had arrived and, over the next several hours, it was set to wreak havoc and devastation throughout the area in a natural rage that no one in the locale had ever witnessed before.

In its wake, the Long Island Express left one of the worst disasters that America had ever witnessed. With winds on average reaching 161 miles an hour at the height of the storm, but gusting to over 190 mph at times, and the storm surge 17 feet above normal with 50 feet high waves recorded at Gloucester, it was one of the most destructive hurricanes known to man.

Every one of the communities along the Long Island and surrounding coastal area suffered. Southampton was virtually obliterated, with all but two of its cottages destroyed and washed away, which included the church. Bridgehampton farmers paid dearly, losing many outbuildings and millions of dollars of crops and livestock. However, as the author Alan (1976) reveals in his book on the subject, Westhampton was one of the worst hit areas, with $2 million of property lost and 32 dead or missing. Fishermen suffered dearly from East Hampton and along the coastal areas to the east, losing eighty vessels, 150 homes and that years harvest of oysters and clams. In addition, rail and road connections and power lines were torn apart in the areas, isolating some communities for several days.

The human and animal cost of the Long Island Express was also catastrophic. Over seven hundred people died, with a similar number being injured, and nearly two thousand livestock perished, along with three quarters of a million chickens.

Nature itself did not escape from the storm unscathed. Throughout the New York and New England area, over two billion trees were lost during the storm and salt marshes in the area were badly damaged. However, perhaps the most significant changes made to the geographical share of the region. Twelve new inlets were born, many of which were subsequently filled with storm wreckage, and others reshaped.

Apart from the human tragedy, the financial cost was enormous at over $6 million, which in today’s value would equate to around $20 million, in what at that time was the sixth most costliest hurricane event in US history. Although there were a few miracle stories about people escaping from the storm, the Long Island Express left no family untouched as it tore its way through the Long Island region that day.

There are many authors who have written extensively about the Long Island Express, including those of Allen (1976), Morris and Bleyer (1998), which are well worth reading. Furthermore, to experience the event from the thoughts of those who were caught up in the disaster, there are numerous letters from survivors kept by the Quogue Historical Society and Westhampton Beach Historical Society, all of which tell the emotional story of that day far better than this short article can.