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The Mast-Head: The Great September Surprise

Thu, 09/14/2023 - 05:48

Yesterday’s rain made me think about something a survivor of the 1938 hurricane said. I forget her name now, but have it in my files somewhere. The days leading up to Sept. 21, 1938, had been “dull,” full of raining and humid air. But the morning of the Great New England Hurricane, as it came to be named by news writers, indicated a perfect end-of-summer day. People who had been shut up in their houses got outside, a few going down to the ocean to look at the rolling surf.

I was always struck by that juxtaposition and how it paints a picture of how little warning there was for tropical storms in those days. Yet there was a general awareness that the middle of September could be treacherous. “Line storms,” some folks called them because they came around the time that the sun “crossed the line,” that is the fall equinox. I may have heard another name for them from the late chronicler of the weather here, Richard Hendrickson of Bridgehampton. They were “corn twisters” because of what they could do to farm fields at harvest time.

School started as usual that morning in East Hampton. My father described how he and his classmates watched through the second-floor windows as the sky got dark and the wind rose. They were sent home early and by the time they reached their houses, trees were already beginning to topple in the street.

By that night, the winds had subsided. Our town was spared the sort of death toll that befell other places the storm crossed. In Westhampton Beach, a house in the dunes was torn apart by the surging ocean, and the family that had been inside of it when the storm arrived floated across the bay on a piece of detached attic. The two Black people who had worked in the house died, one clinging to a phone pole and the other gone to help her.

Six crewmen who had been on the Ocean View menhaden steamer out of Promised Land in Amagansett died when the boat foundered near the Connecticut shore. The ship’s cook survived and I was fortunate to interview him for a public television documentary about the storm. He described clinging to a rock seawall until he could pull himself to safety. Weather forecasting was still rudimentary in those days, so no one knew what was coming on that very fine morning.


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