September 20, 2006

Between The Covers

Sixty-eight years ago tomorrow the East End was battered by the most severe hurricane ever to hit the eastern seaboard, a storm so sudden, swift and catastrophic, that it continues to mesmerize, as though more eye-witness and media accounts of the "big blow" of `38 (hurricanes didn't have names yet) will yield hitherto unknown facts or instructive observations about human behavior.

Why else revisit this already well-covered disaster? Mary Cummings' Hurricane in the Hamptons, 1938 arrives in the wake of the paperback release three months ago of Cherie Burns' The Great Hurricane: 1938, favorably reviewed in this paper when it first came out last year, that book, in turn, coming on the heels of R.A. Scott's often-cited Sudden Storm: The Great Hurricane of 1938, published in 2003.

Ms. Cummings acknowledges these sources, and she thanks individuals and local historical societies for opening their libraries to her, especially photographs.

Hurricane in the Hamptons, 1938 is essentially a pictorial history, with over 150 professional and family photos to which are appended paragraph descriptions, but the local images have "general interest," Ms. Cummings writes, because of what they show of the Hamptons before and after the hurricane, particularly in the areas hardest hit — Westhampton Beach and Southampton and East Hampton townships.

A Southampton native and descendent of one of the village's earliest settlers, a former associate editor of The Southampton Press, a former editor of Hamptons Magazine and Hampton Life, an active freelance writer and trustee of the Southampton Historical Museum, Ms. Cummings comes to her story with insider knowledge.

She writes well, but, for all her research and obvious love of the area, she does not escape what seems to have emerged as a pattern in writing about natural disasters: start with something to the effect that it was a bright and sunny day, move from person to person (little did he/she know that within a couple of hours . . . ), then go town by town into a catalogue of devastating effects — loss of life, damage to beachfront and properties (data given in real figures and as comparative values today), including expressions of surprise at who or what was inexplicably spared. Then nod to the one or two prophets of doom whose warnings were ignored.

Because Ms. Cummings goes where others have already tread, one wishes she had exploited her proximity to original sources, and, in the wake of Katrina — both the hurricane, and its horrific human, economic, environmental and political aftermath — risked conclusions other than the obvious. She wrote the book she says because of what she heard about the hurricane of '38 from family members and their friends (she was born in 1939) and because she became convinced that the East End is "vulnerable," feeling that "it is only a matter of time before another big one strikes."

One also wishes for tales not usually told and for more on the irony that the hurricane ended unemployment; for more on the fact, proved by Katrina, that '38 was not the "turning point" it has been heralded to be; and for more on the mindset of some of those rubbernecking amateur photographers and sightseers captured here in startling photos (schadenfreude by the not rich and not famous?).

Although Ms. Cummings is likely to be challenged in saying that unlike 1938, there is now "ample time [and means] to evacuate people," Hurricane in the Hamptons, 1938, a kind of East End family album will appeal to those who remember the old upscale sites and the expansive shorelines, or wish they did. This is a handsome and heartfelt book, and it realizes the mission of Arcadia Publishing, for whom Mary Cummings wrote Southampton in 1996, to chronicle local regions, communities and topics peculiar to them by way of popular images that marry memory and research.

Hurricane in the Hamptons, 1938 by Mary Cummings, Arcadia Publishing, 128 pp., illus. $19.99.

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