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A storm for the ages, 75 years ago
It was named the “Long Island Express.”
But that was only after it passed, leaving Shelter Island battered but not broken as it trekked north deep into New England along its murderous path.
On September 21, 1938, when the massive storm made landfall, there were no named storms, but even more significantly, there were no National Weather Service advisories to help people prepare for what was coming. Preparation or not, it has gone down in history as one of the most powerful and costliest storms to strike the region.
Slamming into the Northeast as a Category 3 hurricane, it produced wind speeds gusting more than 120 miles per hour, according to National Weather Service estimates. A wall of water estimated at 17 feet high crashed over Long Island, damaging more than 24,000 homes.
As many as 700 people were killed over several states. The Island lost one.
“Homes were washed away, roads were washed away, Long Island Rail Road tracks were washed out… the apple crop was destroyed, a lot of livestock and farming was destroyed,” National Weather Service meteorologist David Stark said in a recent interview.
That long-ago tempest is vividly remembered now by just a handful of Islanders, then school children witnessing the hurricane’s winds shrieking across Shelter Island that late September day, 75 years ago.
Jackie and Maurice “Tut” Tuttle were 5 and 6, respectively, at the time of the storm. She was living in Southold while Maurice, a Harelegger, was in school that historic day.
What Mr. Tuttle remembers is being taken with other children to the McGayheys’ summer house on St. Mary’s Road to ride out the storm. They slept overnight there until it was safe to return home the following day. He remembers the streets being strewn with fallen trees.
He’s not sure if he understood the seriousness of the situation then, saying, “I just knew it was a rough situation. That was a wicked storm.”
Wicked, indeed, his wife agreed. Ms. Tuttle recalls being picked up in advance of the storm by her mother for a shopping trip to Greenport. They entered Katz’s Department Store and were told that a major storm was about to happen. They didn’t have to be told something extraordinary was happening, watching water quickly massing at the back of the store as the tide rose. They took refuge at a friend’s house on Atlantic Avenue in Green-port. An unshakable memory for Ms. Tuttle was watching the storm lift the roof off Eastern Long Island Hospital.
“It rolled up like an ice cream cone and blew down the creek,” she said.
Finally able to start for home, she and her mother began walking down Sound Avenue where the Soundview Inn is today — it was Stanley Case’s fishing store in 1938. “Trees were down everywhere,” she said.
Ahead, she and her mother saw her father coming toward them, axe in hand, cutting his way through debris strewn in the road.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
What 91-year-old Ben Jones remembers is the aftermath. His mother owned a rental property in Shelter Island Heights, just the third house up from North Ferry. The Jones family lived in Maplewood, New Jersey, and young Ben would come out to help his mother maintain the house.
“I didn’t like Shelter Island,” he confesses now, because, “to me Shelter Island was nothing but work.”
Mr. Jones’ mother had been “frantic” during the storm, imagining her Island meal ticket destroyed, but she got a call from a neighbor after the winds and rain had subsided, telling her that the house was undamaged.
Now 75 years past, Mr. Jones still remembers the long, treacherous ride from New Jersey to check out the property first hand. “Driving here was a huge challenge,” he said. “There were constant detours.” But they finally made it across on the ferry to discover the house was in good condition, due to neighbors boarding it up just before the storm hit.
Mr. Jones remembers his mother’s reaction: “She was overjoyed.”
Dorothy Dickerson Clark was a high school junior in 1938. She was among those who spent the night at the school and remembers watching the storm’s fury through the windows, cheering as they watched trees topple
Ms. Clark recalled arriving home the next day to find that the winds had knocked down a large oak tree in her front yard.
Mr. Jones brought up another memory: Communication was difficult because many lines were down and, in those days, most people had party line telephones so what service there was in the wake of the storm was shared and difficult to access. On the other hand, the electricity blackout on the Island was less troublesome because people depended on coal to heat their houses and used ice boxes, not refrigerators.
As the Island began its recovery, the Jones family learned it was going to lose a prized oak that stood between their house and the Coopers’ house. At the peak of the storm, the tree was seen bent over the Coopers’ roof. But then, a miracle — a blast of wind righted it to its original place standing straight up. On further inspection, it was far from a miracle. The core root had snapped and the tree had to come down. Mr. Jones remembers his mother’s sorrow at the loss of the tree.
Bill Krapf stopped by the Reporter office recently to share a memory of living in Brooklyn when the Long Island Express arrived and saw concrete on the Belt Parkway being ripped up by the storm. He also witnessed a neighbor’s roof blown off during the storm.
“If you’ve seen one hurricane, you’ve seen them all,” he said. “They’re all about the same.”
Some circles are completed in a lifetime. Years after the storm, Mr. Jones, by then married to his wife Betty, moved into that family-owned house in the Heights. For 30 years now he’s been a volunteer in the ambulance corps.
He was among those who helped a woman in critical condition get to Southampton Hospital aboard South Ferry during Hurricane Sandy last October.