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Anniversary of Long Island Express storm stirs memories

The aftermath from the Hurricane of 1938.

The aftermath from the Hurricane of 1938. Credit: Copy by Randee Daddona

Westhampton Beach resident Ben Larson, 88, likes to tell people he has been "saved twice" from monster storms that have struck Long Island.

His second reprieve was last year, when floodwaters pushed up by superstorm Sandy came within two feet of his home.

But it was a much nearer miss back in September of 1938 when he and family members looked down from the second floor of their home, as the waters churned up by the Long Island Express -- a killer Category 3 hurricane -- rose up to just below their first-floor ceiling.

That was the storm that took Long Island by surprise 75 years ago Saturday, wiping out most homes on the Dune Road barrier island, destroying boats, pushing cars and debris three miles inland, and creating the Shinnecock Inlet, which remains to this day.

The fast-moving storm, which roared on to Connecticut and western Massachusetts, took around 60 lives on Long Island, with a total fatality count of around 600 on- and offshore, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Packing 120 mph sustained winds when it plowed into the Island, the Express "makes Sandy look like a light breeze," said Jon Stanat, a trustee of the Westhampton Beach Historical Society, which through Oct. 26 is featuring a 75th anniversary exhibit, with storm photos, newspaper pages, family albums and some artifacts.

The National Weather Service in the Upton office has created a web page called "The Great New England Hurricane of 1938," including the storm's timeline, meteorological features, and a video interview with a 101-year-old Bridgehampton volunteer weather observer for more than 80 years.

In a collection of storm reminiscences prepared for its 60th anniversary by the Quogue and Westhampton Beach historical societies, Larson said the water marks near the ceiling were "a grim reminder" for his family of the ferocity of the '38 storm.

One big factor in the impact of the two storms was the lack of warning in 1938. Forecasting such storms back then was largely based on reports from ships at sea.

Larson said of Sandy: "I was more prepared for this one."

Indeed, 18 days before the superstorm made landfall on Oct. 29, the National Hurricane Center started observing the tropical wave that was to develop into Sandy.

In all, 72 Sandy-related U.S. deaths were reported, 13 of them on Long Island. Were a clone of the Long Island Express to strike again, far fewer deaths could be expected, thanks to advanced monitoring, said Jay Tanski, coastal processes and facilities specialist with New York Sea Grant, a cooperative research and education program at Stony Brook University.

Sandy resulted in an estimated $50 billion in damage. A hypothetical Long Island Express, following the same path, would do about $41 billion in damage, adjusted for 2010 inflation, increased population and property development, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Storm surge was at the core of destruction for both storms, said Scott A. Mandia, professor of physical sciences, Suffolk County Community College.

Back in 1938, surge across Long Island was 15 feet, he said, "which was about twice that for Sandy," though New York Harbor was hit with a 14-foot storm tide. "Due to the extensive property [development] along the South Shore today, Sandy's surge, although lower, did more damage," especially in western Long Island, he said.

In both storms, however, there were harrowing rescues.

Among the items in the Westhampton Beach Historical Society's exhibit is a photo of an Elgin watch, given to Hallock W. Culver, 91, of Westhampton Beach, by a woman saved by him and his cousin in 1938.

Sharing his story in the 60th anniversary collection, Culver told of being dismissed early from school, driving around trees and limbs blown onto the road, his family's "concern as the water was rising from the bay."

"With the wind still howling" and hearing sounds of a person in distress, he and his cousin were called on to don life jackets and plunge into "over-your-head" water near their backyard. "Swimming through briars, grapevines, and brush," he wrote, the two were able to rescue "a woman clinging to an overturned rowboat."

A Dune Road summer resident, the woman later gifted her rescuers with watches, Culver said in a recent phone interview.

The inscription on his reads: "To Hallock In Appreciation of a Deed of Bravery 9-21-38."

Monster storms' cost comparison


Estimated superstorm Sandy damage - at least $51 billion

Damage if the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane were to hit today - $41 billion

Source: NOAA


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