Gurney's Inn
January 24, 2007

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Mary Cummings / Courtesy Southampton Historical Museum Here lies the summer "cottage" of John F. Harris on Dune Road in Southampton before the Hurricane of 1938. Below, the estate simply succumbs to the force of the storm. (click for larger version)

Mary Cummings / Courtesy Eric Woodward collection (click for larger version)
A piano resting on the dunes. Cars deftly balanced on their sides. Sailboats perched ashore. The routine of everyday life was promptly unseated and in its place a joggled mess of belongings were strewn across the terrain.

Before sophisticated weather forecasting technology, and before the practice of naming hurricanes (early 1950s), there was the Hurricane of 1938, a fierce, swift-moving Category 3 storm that swept across the northeastern coastline killing hundreds of people, leveling homes and leaving fractured communities in its wake.

"I grew up out here and grew up hearing the story because although I'm too young to have lived through it, all of our parents at that time had lived through it. It was the stand-out event of their adult life," said Mary Cummings, who recently published the book, Hurricane in the Hamptons, 1938, a pictorial account of the natural disaster.

Also known as the "Long Island Express," for its extraordinary speed, the storm veered up the eastern seaboard at 60 miles per hour, striking Long Island and New England without warning in the mid afternoon of September 21. The eye of the storm was about 50 miles wide.

It saved most of its East End fury for Westhampton Beach, bringing with it a 10-foot storm surge on top of already above normal tides due to the autumnal equinox. "The powerful surge, combined with winds of more than 100 miles an hour and pounding 30- to 50-foot waves was enough to obliterate most shorefront property," Cummings writes. The impact registered on seismographs in Alaska. In some places the ocean carved through the land to connect with the bays -- the Shinnecock Inlet was formed that day. Fifty-two people perished in Southampton and East Hampton.

Cummings, a freelance writer, also works at the Southampton Historical Museum. The idea to do a book evolved from an exhibition the museum presented on the '38 hurricane -- "people came in droves. People are really fascinated by the hurricane of 1938 as they are by most natural disasters, but this one was ours."

Cummings, who had done a pictorial volume titled Southampton, with Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, was approached by then museum director Richard Barons to do a similar book on the hurricane.

Photographs were culled from all the East End historical societies and her father's personal collection -- he snapped pictures from East Hampton to Westhampton when the storm passed. Others came forward as well with their own mementos. Many of the stories in the book were drawn from survivors recounting their experiences.

"In Montauk, Gene McGovern had no sooner entered the post office when the wind and tide came up so suddenly that he was unable to leave. After kicking a window, he managed to escape from the building, which had started to move and was eventually deposited some 400 feet from where it had stood," Cummings writes.

The infrastructure of the South Fork was rendered impotent but the residents' resolve to restore natural order was impressive.

"I was amazed at how fast they got the initial work done considering that most people had handsaws, but they cleared the roads," said Cummings. Still, "it took not weeks but months and maybe by the end of the year," before life resembled normalcy.

In 1938, it had been 45 years since a Category 3 hurricane had struck the area and many had settled into a false sense of security. Lessons were learned but not for long, and it is evident that people have once again divorced themselves from the reality that a storm is inevitable.

"I think after this people were quite shaken and they realized they felt much more vulnerable," Cummings posited, "but as we can see now, it didn't really last because I think we're complacent again and anyone can tell from a walk on the beach that no one's terribly worried anymore about building on the beach." Very few beachfront homes survived the hurricane of '38 and those that did were often deemed uninhabitable.

And yet the impulse to rebuild what nature tears down seems irrepressible.

"[The beach] is the last frontier. It's the last place you can build and there's nothing beyond you and you've got the whole ocean to look at and of course it's one of the most beautiful beaches in the world," said Cummings, but it's also that "they just don't think it will happen in their lifetime, and you have to have a somewhat self-induced state of denial."

It has been 69 years since the Hurricane of '38, and the scars from that storm have nearly vanished. Experts believe Long Island is long overdue for another storm of this magnitude, but with a dramatically increased coastal population, the wreckage could be catastrophic.

"I don't know how we can be prepared," said Cummings. "That's the terrible question, because we are all kind of on alert now when the hurricane season begins and there's a lot of information being spread around on the dangers, but what will we do? Where will we go?"

Hurricane in the Hamptons, Arcadia Publishing; pp. 128. $19.99.

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