1938 Hurricane

Damage Caused by Storm

Ranked 6th Worst!!!
Time Magazine, 1998

Video of Damage in Hamptons, Long Island
Source: YouTube user lipwak

The total cost of the Long Island Express in terms of lives lost or disrupted, homes destroyed or damaged, and economic impact was staggering. Describing all of the damage caused by the hurricane has filled entire books so this Web page will summarize the total damage and focus on the damage incurred on Long Island, New York.

Total estimated damage from the 1938 Hurricane:

More than 50 lives were lost on Long Island that day - 29 of them at or near Westhampton Beach. The bodies were laid out on the country club lawn in Westhampton later the next day. Total cost of the storm for Long Island was estimated to be $6.2 million, in 1938 prices, between Jones Inlet and Montauk Point. (Morris & Bleyer, 1998) Total cost of the storm throughout the northeast in 1998 dollars would place the 1938 Hurricane as the 6th costliest storm of all time (TIME, 1998).

Click for Larger ViewWesthampton, with 28 dead and 4 missing a month later, with at least 150 houses destroyed and a property loss of $2 million, was the worst hit of all the Long Island communities. A mile inland, the storm surge had caused over 6 feet of water to flood Main Street (Allen, 1976).

Southhampton suffered heavily along the shore front. From the bathing house to the municipal beach, only two cottages remained standing after the sea swept Dune Road. Among the shattered ruins was St. Andrew's Church of the Dunes, the scene of many society weddings over the years (Allen, 1976).
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At Bridgehampton, the farmers were heavy losers; nearly 50 barns went down from Water Mill to Wainscott and north to the line of the Scuttle Hole Road. Potato farmers near the ocean found many acres washed out, washed away, or buried deep beneath sand from the beach. On other fields that had been flooded with sea water, the potatoes rotted soon after being dug. Farmers lost garages, chicken houses, and outbuildings, as well as barns; there were more than 80 places with such losses (Allen, 1976).

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From East Hampton to the east, it was fisherman who paid the storm's toll. At Montauk, the hurricane rendered 150 fisherman homeless, destroyed or badly damaged more than 80 good-sized fishing craft, ruined scores of dragnets and fish traps, valued in some cases at $10,000 each, and came close to wiping out the sole year-round industry at Montauk. About 100 houses were seriously damaged, six ending in the pond near the center of town; all power and lights were lost; the storm tore up miles of track along the Long Island Railroad - near Montauk Point, even the roadbed was obliterated - and the community was virtually isolated from the time the hurricane struck until two days later. 29 vessels, some worth as much as $25,000, had been blown ashore and lay from 100 to 300 feet up the beach, costing a fortune to repair (Allen, 1976). The oyster and clam industry was also wiped out as tons of sand smothered the entire harvest.

Fire Island from the Air On the day after the storm, Lieutenant Theodore Harris of the Coast Guard flew the length of of Long Island for eight hours trying to spot bodies and report their location. He saw 300 crushed and scattered houses at Ocean Beach, 100 demolished houses at Fair Harbor and another 100 at Saltaire. There were about 40 houses largely inundated at Little Cap Tree Island. Approaching Westhampton, he said that the land had the appearance of a child's room on New Year's Day, with all his toy houses and automobiles broken and warped. At least 100 automobiles were washed inland (Allen, 1976).

Wrecked Cars 12 new inlets were created by the tremendous storm surge. Moriches Inlet, created by a winter storm in 1931, was widened substantially and Shinnecock Inlet was born. As will be discussed later, the creation of this inlet is affecting coastal Long Island still today. All other inlets were filled in with the wreckage of the storm, especially the automobiles, as well as with tons of sand brought in by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Click for Larger View Tree damage was extensive throughout New York and New England where an estimated 2 billion trees were lost. (Francis, 1998) An estimated 3,500 trees were lost in the Bridgehampton-Sagaponack-Hayground area alone. Trees were down everywhere but there was a particularly heart-breaking story in East Hampton. The elms and locusts that formed an arch a half-mile long over Main Street had been planted before the American Revolution; they can still be seen in the canvases of many important painters. the trees were among the town's most cherished historical landmarks, but when the storm was over, 42 percent of the Main Street elms were gone. 68 trees lie in the middle of the road torn to pieces (Allen, 1976).

Salt spray from wind-blown sea water and mixed rain water also had the effect of browning trees that did survive. Weeks later these trees were dead. One can still find many downed trees throughout eastern Long Island's forest that are a direct result of this great hurricane. More recently, a study of the Buzzard's Bay coastal region revealed that 50% of the salt-sensitive White Pines were killed by salt spray from Hurricane Bob in 1991 (USGS). In 1938, Long Island salt marshes were inundated with tons of overwash (sand brought over the dune into marshland areas) that prevented the marsh grasses from growing back. This effectively decreased the area of the salt marsh for years.

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Click images for larger views of more tree damage.
One positive economic outcome of the 1938 Hurricane was that it effectively ended the unemployment experienced near the end of The Great Depression. At that time most people were out of work and would gladly work for the standard wage of $2 per day. Because so much damage had occurred to homes and buildings and so many trees were blocking roadways, thousands of people flocked to Long Island in search of clean-up work and repair. In fact, more than 2,700 men were brought into New York and New England by Bell Systems just to repair the downed phone lines.

Historical Perspective
Human Interest

Scott A. Mandia, Professor - Physical Sciences
T-202 Smithtown Sciences Bldg.
mandias@sunysuffolk.edu <-- PREFERRED CONTACT METHOD

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