Above a grouping of photographs on a wall of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead is an old windup clock. Curiously, its hands do not move, fixed at around half past 5.
They have been that way for decades, marking — as does a stain midway across the timepiece’s face — the hour on a late September day when close to 8 feet of water flooded Raynor’s service station in the center of Westhampton. “We positioned the clock on the wall as it had been in the garage 80 years ago so people can actually see and gauge how high the water came,” says Jaime Karbowiak, curator of the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum exhibition “The Long Island Express: Remembering the 1938 Hurricane” in Riverhead.
The clock is among a host of objects, photographic images, newspaper reports and personal written accounts describing the monstrous weather event that claimed some 60 lives in the region, swept away homes and businesses, and both temporarily and permanently redefined the landscape of the East End of Long Island. (The storm transformed Montauk briefly into an island and created 10 new inlets along the Suffolk County coastline). The clock also serves as a strong reminder that there was little, if any, time for residents to prepare or evacuate before the rapidly paced Category 3 storm hit that early autumn afternoon, with 180-mile-per-hour wind gusts and 30- to 50-foot waves pounding the shores.
In seconds, most of the homes along Westhampton’s Dune Road were reduced to rubble and splintered wood. “With houses breaking up, people grabbed what they could, holding on for dear life,” Karbowiak says. Historic photos, including aerial views taken by Quogue news photographer George Haddad, capture segments of torn-off roofs and other debris strewn across local golf courses and village roads.
A ledger, displayed with its smeared-ink pages opened to the date of the storm, was found in the wreckage of the Quogue fire department secretary’s Dune Road home. “After it dried out, it was salvaged and used again,” Karbowiak says. “There are notes in the ledger that date till the end of 1959.”
Sections of the show are also devoted to nearby communities, from Fire Island to Southampton. One focusing on the North Fork includes snapshots of the Greenport Theater before and after being caught in the hurricane’s destructive path. “There were around 50 people gathered in the lobby to see a movie, but then the building started to collapse and they ran out,” the curator says. “It was like they were in a movie.”
Recent storms such as Katrina, Sandy and Florence have raised awareness of how volatile weather conditions have become. “It’s important to see just how vulnerable we are,” says executive director Victoria Berger, “and to calculate the odds of how close we are to the next big one.”
WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 3, Wednesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Suffolk County Historical Society Museum, 300 W. Main St., Riverhead
INFO $1-$5; 631-727-2881, suffolkhistoricalsociety.org