1938 Hurricane

Westhampton Beach Perspective from George E. Burghard

The following storm account was related to Everett S. Allen, author of A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane, by George E. Burghard, who was a Westhampton resident at the time. There are many eastern Long Island people who would observe similar experiences on this day.

10 AM - The wind was strong from the north and seas were heavy but there was no cause for alarm because seas were actually higher yesterday.

11 AM - The wind started shifting to the east and grew considerably stronger, until at 11:30, it blew almost a gale from the northeast, with heavy rain. It looked like a good northeaster, which was to be expected this time of year.

12 PM - Water begins to bubble up through the concrete floor of the garage. Burghard and a friend assumed it was from the bay backing up but after tasting how salty it was, concluded it must be sea water. Because no water had come over the dunes they believed it must be bubbling up from below.

1 PM - Burghard tuned his radio in to WEAF and heard: "The West Indies hurricane is in mid-Atlantic." It was said in such a casual way that he paid no further attention to it!

1:30 PM - As he attempts to fix an outside antenna, the winds are so strong that the flying sand cuts his face and causes him to retreat into the house.

2 PM - Up to now, no waves had come over the dunes, but the wind was shifting more to the east and growing stronger all the time. Burghard judged the wind speeds to be at least 90 mph. He found two feet of water in his garage but still believed that the weather was as bad as it would get and would let up soon.

2:30 PM - The first wave came over the dune, right in front of his house. It was all white-water, but about four feet deep, and with plenty of force. All kinds of driftwood and wreckage came with it. The next wave came a few seconds later, lifted up the bathhouse and swept it down Dune Road at 20 mph.

3 PM - A wave breaks through the back door and sweeps him down a hallway.

3:30 PM - Every wave was now coming over the dune and the surf was running through the bottom of the house. A friend of Burghard's suggests that the whole family leave and try to make it to the bridge a half mile to the east. The car was useless as the sea water was already flooding the entire vehicle and Dune Road was washing away by the minute.

4 PM - Burghard, his family and friends have trouble leaving the house since the weight of the water has jammed the door. They finally manage to get out and begin walking/swimming along Dune Road. The water is up to their waists and rising fast. Dune Road is a torrent of water, logs, and other debris that they must keep dodging.

4:15 PM - The wind shifted to the southeast (no longer parallel to the shore) and the surf seemed to be lifted right over the dunes to the road they were standing on. Green waves - some 50 feet high - came over, and the surf began to break on top of them. They grabbed onto telephone poles as boards, planks, and timbers pelted them. The wind was southeast at well over 110 mph and the sand in the air was terrific. Burghard looked to see the Coast Guard station get washed away. The station was a 60' x 50' two story high structure and it was smahed to bits. Burghard's group settled onto a large piece of debris (remnants from a bathhouse) and began floating across the bay. The wind had driven the bay water across to the mainland to such an extent that for about 200 feet, the bay bottom was dry, but only between waves. As they floated across the bay, they dodged house-sized pieces of debris. They observed a flock of ducks flying but actually being driven backward at 40 mph.

5 PM - The winds were now blowing from the southwest but just as hard. The group landed across the bay about one mile from their own house.

They eventually managed to walk two miles to safety in the center of the town of Westhampton. Two of their friends and a family dog did not make it and were found days later in the wreckage.

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Scott A. Mandia, Professor - Physical Sciences
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