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Experience counts in a crisis; three Islanders speak about living each day

They’ve been through wars, natural disasters and grave illness. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic? They can manage.

Dorothy Bloom was in math class in high school when the wind outside began rattling the windows. “It had been raining for days,” she said, remembering that day in September 1938. “But we didn’t have weather forecasting anything like we have now. We didn’t know what was coming.”

What history has termed “The Long Island Express,” the most damaging hurricane in the region’s history, was slamming into the Island.

In class that day, she wasn’t really worried. “I was a girl,” Ms. Bloom said. “But when I saw our teacher’s face, I knew something bad was happening.”

Students were sent home through the shrieking winds and hammering rain. Everyone took cover to wait out the storm.

Reports from the time record scores of bodies washed ashore from boats sunk by the hurricane. Whole wooded areas of the Island were knocked flat and fallen tress and flooding made roads impassable for weeks. Power was out for more than two weeks, Ms. Bloom said.

“We had a pump that was powered by electricity so I remember how worried my mother was,” she said. “But she went to a neighbor who had a hand pump.” The family had fresh water, even if they had to lug it.

“My mother found an old kerosene lamp, ” Ms. Bloom said. “She put it on the dining room table and it was the single light in our house. I remember reading there.”

She was in the Navy in World War II, assigned to a base in San Diego where she worked on aeronautical charts and knows, she said, about service and keeping your head when important work has to be done. Flaws in charts could lead to deaths, she added.

She misses getting out now, especially going to church at St. Mary’s, a weekly connection that the services bring her. “I was baptized in that church,” she said. Father Charles McCarron — “Father Charlie,” as she calls him — is helping her with Zoom services and she’s beginning to get the hang of it, she said.

Ms. Bloom’s major concern about the present crisis is “people will get complacent,” and not listen to pleas to help stop the spread of the virus.

Mollie Strugats is another Islander who had experience in a war. As a girl in England, her mother sent her to a country boarding school during the Battle of Britain when German aircraft bombed British cities for nearly four months. Her voice lights up as she remembers those perilous times, and how she and her schoolmates wanted to be a part of what their country was going through. “We’d go outside at night and say, ‘Please, God, let us have an air raid,’” she said. “Isn’t that terrible?”

Her husband, Robert Strugats, is a decorated World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps, flying multiple missions in the Pacific theater.

Ms. Strugats said they’re both doing well. To keep busy, she said, with a hint of merriment in her voice, “I’m cooking and cleaning. Every day. I’m experimenting with my cooking. I’ve come up with — what should I say? — some rather strange meals.”

She misses her yoga classes, but has a friend nearby and they “walk all over the neighborhood every day.” And not getting to the library for a good book is difficult. “We’re fine, though,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Another suddenly obsessive housekeeper is Nancy Butts. “I have the cleanest house on Shelter Island,” Ms. Butts said. “I haven’t been out since the middle of March.”

Nancy Butts (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

She knows something about confinement and illness. When she was six years old, she contracted polio, in the years before there was a vaccine against the crippling disease. And then, more than 70 years later, she was stricken with “post-polio.”

As a child, she was in the hospital for a year, and then had another year of physical therapy.

Through therapy, and fitted into a leg brace, she learned to walk again. She overcame her second round of the disease as well and gets around with a walker. She stays active working for the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, and misses the job.

She’s also active with the Senior Center and has been a volunteer making calls to people who are alone. Her two daughters are in touch and, “my guardian angel,” Jenny Zahler, makes grocery and pharmacy runs for her.

“I’ve got books — anything with a happy ending — my dogs and my deck,” Ms. Butts said, where spring sunshine has made isolation much easier. “I’m grateful for everything. I’m one of the fortunate ones.”