The Hurricane of 1938. (Image from the Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society Library Archives. Copyright © Suffolk County Historical Society. All rights reserved.)
Seventy-nine years ago almost to the day, the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history at the time slammed into the Northeast and Long Island without warning, leaving death and devastation in its wake. With the development of storm-tracking radar still a few years off, the hurricane took residents by surprise. After several days of rain, the 200-mile-wide storm roared ashore near Westhampton at high tide, a category 3 with sustained winds of 120 mph. Tides surged as high as 17 feet above normal, with eyewitnesses later describing walls of water over 12 feet tall rolling in from the ocean. The eye of the storm was itself 43 miles wide, stretching from Brentwood to Mattituck as the storm hit the island.
These images are from a Telephone Workers Supplement to Telephone Review, published in October 1938. One story recounted in the publication describes telephone workers in or around Westhampton, "which suffered the heaviest loss of life and damage to shorefront homes." Amazingly, telephone service at the time appeared to work during the storm. The supplement describes "the courage of the telephone operators who stayed at their boards while huge walls of water swept around the building, and while boats and debris of wrecked homes bumped the telephone company's central office wall. They answered the frantic calls for help from those marooned by the rising sea, assuring them that their plight was known and that help was on the
Sometimes referred to as the Long Island Express, the 1938 hurricane occurred before such storms were given names. According to the Bridgehampton News in Oct. 1938, the storm caused an estimated $24 million in damage to private and public property in Suffolk County. It also felled 270 million trees, damaged 200,000 buildings, beached thousands of boats, and threw LIRR trains off their tracks. Over 600 people died from Long Island north to New England, including 50 on Long Island.