Storm Warning

A novel of the Great Hurricane of 1938
Genie Chipps Henderson Lily Henderson

“A Day Like Any Other”
Genie Chipps Henderson
Pushcart Press, $25

Just last week, Hurricane Florence ravaged much of the Carolina coast almost 80 years to the day that the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 brought an end to an age of innocence. Florence, though a Category 1 storm, raged inland, creating even more havoc and what will be months if not years of rebuilding. The Southeast had advance warning last week; satellite-aided weather forecasting has made these unpredictable storms almost predictable. 

That was not the case in the late 1930s, as the Great Depression faded away and a new conflict grew in Europe into which the United States would be plunged. In many ways, the period of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, industrial advances, better transportation options, and the beginnings of social change was an era of hope for many Americans. But coming unannounced and into a region where few inhabitants had experienced the power of the weather at its fullest, the Great Hurricane of 1938 was a momentous event and perhaps a portent of the challenges to come.

This is the milieu for Genie Chipps Henderson’s new novel, “A Day Like Any Other: The Great Hamptons Hurricane of 1938,” set on the South Fork and peopled with interlocking stories based to different degrees on what really happened. 

In its structure the novel is fascinating, as a single storm of this magnitude brings with it innumerable individual stories. Ms. Henderson created a Sept. 21 based to a considerable degree on real people’s experiences as told and retold in news accounts of the time and subsequent works of nonfiction. Too, the novel was compiled after Katrina, Harvey, and Maria, hurricanes that devastated other places, and there are some echoes of those often human-accelerated disasters here.

The author’s characters are introduced in vignettes, each moving unaware of what is to come through the morning of the storm as the hours tick down: a fisherman headed to Block Island, a junior forecaster in the Washington Weather Bureau, summer folks on Dune Road nearing the time to close up the house, a painter, a loner living in a tin-roofed shack in the Amagansett dunes, children at a birthday party.

From the morning of the great storm, Ms. Henderson takes the story back to the preceding June, when a cold Atlantic delays the coming of summer weather, “As if even Mother Nature herself felt obliged to hold back until the paying customers arrived.”

In Ms. Henderson’s small 1938 world of a Hamptons summer, lives intertwine, leaping sometimes further back, a city girl of 18 meeting her future husband, from Iowa, no less, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a storm painting by the great Thomas Moran. Then forward, a Bonacker flourishing a live eel on East Hampton Main Street. A doomed affair. It is summer in the Hamptons, full of short-lived ecstasies and long-cultivated resentments.

It is 5 a.m. on Sept. 21, 1938, when the novel returns to the day of the storm. Mitch Grindle leaves Amagansett for the Montauk Docks to go fishing. At 12:30 in the afternoon, Judy Tate hosts a child’s birthday party at her Dune Road house. As the ocean breaches to the road, a black houseman is abandoned, perhaps to die. 

The prose is vivid and unexpected as the ordinary day turns more terrible as the seconds pass.

“The trees were blowing in a violent rage and the air screamed out above like yowling cats.”

“Giant sections of houses roared by — whole cars floated in the surf until the wind got behind them and churned them over and over like breaching whales.” 

Then, the aftermath, searching for survivors, accounting for the dead, tear-filled reunions, a jarring calm.

“It was a warm day, the water glistening, a blanket of tiny jewels, and the ocean now comfortably back in its bed picture perfect.”

Near to the last pages, a character speaks of her fear. “I was. Yes, scared in a way I can hardly describe but the best thing about fear is it makes you smarter than you are.”

This is a fitting epigraph for the novel, but it is also a warning, unintended by the author, perhaps, but important nonetheless. Absent fear, in the 1920s and 1930s, the wealthy built summer places on the beach. Roads were paved where a hundred years before, people knew not to set anything down permanently. Fishing families lived close to Fort Pond Bay, which rose up and destroyed everything they owned in an afternoon. The 1938 Hurricane changed that, but only for a time. Memory fades. An ocean view and resale value takes over.

It has been 80 years since that day and the devastation it brought as far from the Long Island coast as Canada, where floodwaters upended life for weeks. Accounts vary as to how many died as a result of the storm; the Red Cross at the time put the total in an official report at more than 600. No New England hurricane has even come close in terms of lives lost and property destroyed.

Complacency of the sort that preceded Sept. 21, 1938, again is the norm, despite the knowledge that a changing climate and sea level rise have already made storms more powerful and perhaps more frequent. Today’s vulnerability along Long Island’s shores would be unimaginable to those who lost so much eight decades ago. Damage from a storm of 1938’s scale would run into the billions, and even then, we would forget, as we have before.

“A Day Like Any Other” reminds us to be afraid, and in that fear, to be smarter. It is reasonable to pity the elected officials who must now confront the devil’s bargain of the future of our coasts. For them this book might be required reading — if they are to have any sense of just how bad a day can be.

Genie Chipps Henderson lives in Springs. She will read from “A Day Like Any Other” at the Amagansett Life-Saving and Coast Guard Station on Friday, Sept. 21, at 5 p.m.

A tree uprooted on East Hampton Main Street in the 1938 Hurricane crushed Carmen Messmore’s showroom-new coupe.
The modest houses of Montauk’s fishing families were carried by the surging waters of the 1938 Hurricane from their foundations along Fort Pond Bay and deposited around Tuthill’s Pond.
Livelihoods and lives were lost along the Long Island and southern New England coasts, as the storm arrived without warning, tossing boats ashore and causing millions of dollars in damage. Napeague remained flooded, below, well after the hurricane had raced inland. People said that Montauk became an island. East Hampton Star Archive