Sandy – it weakened from hurricane strength before it made landfall – is far from the only major storm to hit the New York City and Long Island region over the last half-century. But the storm that set the bar for East Coast carnage was the 1938 hurricane, which struck at a time before meteorologists had even begun to name substantial tropical storms.
It hit on Sept. 21, 1938 as a category 3 hurricane, its sustained winds topping out at a stunning 121 mph. Fortunately for New York City, its eye crossed over Long Island and into New England 75 miles to the east. Ten people died in the five boroughs, and floods knocked power out north of 59th Street in Manhattan and in all of the Bronx. High winds also destroyed 100 trees in Central Park.
The storm devastated Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, eroding beaches and sometimes carved new channels into the coastline. The death toll reached nearly 200. By contrast, Sandy is reported to have killed 110 in the United States, including at least 41 in New York City.
My own father experienced the 1938 hurricane as an 8-year-old in Connecticut. He and his father explored the wreckage after the storm passed, salvaging a massive chunk of mahogany from the remains of a luxury yacht and building it into a flat-bottomed fishing dinghy that they used for years. That anecdote, of widespread wreckage lingering for days, seemed like something out of another time until Sandy’s storm surge ripped massive swaths of the Rockaway boardwalk off its concrete stanchions, flooded the subways and sparked fires that destroyed dozens of homes.
So yes, some things have changed after seven decades, but some remain the same. Westhampton, L.I. resident Arthur Raynor was 18 when that hurricane struck. In The 1938 Hurricane As We Remember It: Volume II, which was prepared by the Quogue Historical Society and Westhampton Beach Historical Society, he recalls the lack of public information in the days or even hours leading up to the destruction.
“Weather coverage of that day was not anything like what is available today,” he wrote in 1998. “For instance, no satellite, radar, or anything except ship reports. The spread of this information to the public was limited and most people didn't pay a lot of attention, since Long Island weather never seemed to fit the pattern of the continent most of the time.”
Other observations sound depressingly familiar, like the extended loss of power and communications to many communities. “It was that way for a week afterward because the power companies had worked out this really great plan to help each other,” Raynor wrote with some sarcasm. “The way it was to work was, when a hurricane appeared to pick a place to come ashore, let's say like in this case around Cape Hatteras, or Norfolk, then the New England companies would send every man and truck they could spare to that point ... and that's where they were on the way to when the thing jumped from a forward speed of 15 MPH to 45 MPH, and fooled everybody.”
One thing I doubt we’ll see again will be the vital contribution New York’s state animal made to mitigating the storm’s terrible fury. At Stony Point in Rockland County, more than 500 beavers in Bear Mountain State Park worked furiously to reinforce their dams as the floodwaters rose, saving critical (human) infrastructure in the process. Author Everett Allen chronicles this in his 1976 book, A Wind to Shake the World. “John J. Tamsen, superintendent of Bear Mountain Park, and William H. Carr, director of the Trailside Museum, maintained by the American Museum of Natural History, credited the beavers -- who cut down trees all through the night of the hurricane to reinforce their wood-and-mud bulwarks -- with having saved three arterial highways from serious flooding, preventing the certain destruction of at least one bridge, and retarding the erosion of hundreds of acres of soil. Carr said had it not been for the beaver dams ‘backing up perfectly terrific bodies of water, in some cases, more than 200 yards across,’ Long Mountain Road, U.S. Highway 6, and the Johnstown Road would have been transformed into rivers for distances of up to a quarter of a mile.”
Want to learn more about the 1938 Hurricane? Check out Sudden Sea by R.A. Scotti.