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The Catastrophic Hurricane of 1938: Lost Lives, Beaches Battered, Neighborhoods Annihilated

33 North Main Street

A Day Like Any Other

Wet streets

After three days of rain, the morning of Wednesday, September 21, 1938, dawned bright and fair in Southampton. Unaware of the storm whipping itself into a frenzy just miles away, village residents were going about their normal tasks. Twelve-year-old Orson Munn and some friends thought it great sport to ride their bikes through the puddle-filled streets before drying off at Buddy McDonnell’s home behind the Atlantic dunes.

Hurricane track

Sophisticated forecasting technology was, of course, still far in the future But even the few who were aware of a storm out in the Atlantic had every reason to believe that once it turned northward off the Florida coast, it would take the path characteristic of such storms and continue to curve out to sea. Nor could anyone have imagined that it would roar up the coast at 60 miles an hour, faster than any hurricane had been known to travel before.

As late as noon on the 21st the radio weather report told of nothing more to be expected than “shifting easterly gales.” At mid-afternoon, when the storm struck, most people did not realize that a hurricane was upon them even as the waters began flooding their coastal homes. While most beachfront houses had likely been vacated for the season, many of those who had lingered in hopes of wringing a bit more summer from the season later described having been taken totally by surprise when waves began beating at their windows and water began oozing under their doors.

The Storm Strikes

Beach debris

For Orson Munn and his friends the true force of the storm was revealed when they watched from a window and saw three successive waves reduce an eight foot wall to rubble. Then the next wave was worse--a six-foot high wall of water carrying chairs, lamps and all manner of debris picked up along its path of destruction. As the water surged over the dunes, the boys knew they were trapped.

Storm surge

While heavy rains and fierce winds did their share of damage, the storm surge, a wall of water created by high winds that caused the ocean water to pile up, was deadly. All along the coastline the ocean broke through the barrier beach forming new inlets and flooding the properties of sumptuous beachfront cottages and clubhouses. Rampaging seawater, weighing roughly 1,700 pounds per cubic yard and carrying tons of debris, devastated everything in its path.

Southampton’s only two fatalities occurred at the place where the ocean broke through the dunes by the Bathing Corporation, sweeping everything in its path into Lake Agawam. Sisters Della Johnson and Florence Hunter, along with two others, had been on their way to visit a patient in Southampton Hospital when they apparently decided to have a look at the ocean after toppled trees blocked the road back to town. As the water surged, the group first took refuge in the Bathing Corp building but left for safer ground when the waves began pounding the doors.

Florence Hunter is thought to have drowned in the road. The others were washed against a privet hedge, which apparently saved the lives of all but Della Johnson. When another huge wave swept her away from the group, lifeguard Dan Ferry went to her assistance, but yet another wave carried her out of reach and swept him into the lake where he battled for an hour and a half in the roiling lake before finally reaching shore.

Beachfront Buildings Battered

Dune Church

Just west of the beach club the iconic Dune Church lost its protective dune leaving it exposed to the full fury of the hurricane. The building was severely damaged, several of its exquisite stained-glass windows were shattered, and the church organ was later found floating 1,000 feet from the church. The wreckage presented a daunting challenge but in the weeks that followed the beloved church was completely restored.

Of the summer homes lining the Southampton beachfront, very few escaped the hurricane’s wrath intact. Some were simply swept away; others were wrecked beyond repair. Fortunately, most had been closed for the season. Had the storm hit two weeks earlier, the death toll would surely have been far higher.

Pool wreckage

East of the club and the church, the massive estate formerly owned by Woolworth heiress Jessie Woolworth Donahue saw its spectacular covered pool reduced to a pile of mangled metal and shattered glass. Owned in 1938 by Edmund Lynch, it was one of the very few beachfront structures that was properly insured at that time and warranted a whopping $65,000 payout!

Schieffelin, the ½ on beach

Schieffelin, the ½ at Old Mill House

In one of the most dramatic examples of the hurricane’s force, the Schieffelin house was ripped apart, leaving the west portion standing precariously on its chimney while the east portion was swept over the road by the roiling waters and deposited alongside the quaint Old Mill House. When the waters receded, the scene was a hodgepodge of errant eaves, displaced porches, houseless roofs and roofless houses. For many, repair and reconstruction were not options. The prognosis for the Schieffelin house was a dismal one, but the Old Mill House survives and continues to attract admiring attention.

Pieces of White Caps at Meadow Club

The house that McKim, Mead and White designed for Charles B. Henderson was utterly demolished by the hurricane, its pieces flung onto the lawn of the nearby Meadow Club. Said to be the only Southampton cottage the firm did in the simple Shingle Style, “White Caps,” as it was named, was praised in an 1892 edition of Harper’s Weekly as “a characteristic dune house.”

After the storm, the Meadow Club, the center of Southampton’s summer colony social and sporting life since 1887, was submerged under four feet of water bearing the wreckage of “White Caps.” The club was founded just 15 years after lawn tennis was introduced in America and just as Southampton was gaining recognition as a fashionable summer resort. The club took particular pride in its world-class grass courts and after the hurricane, sample blades of the ruined grass were sent to Washington for analysis. Eventually the proper type of grass was identified and replaced.

The Village Takes a Beating

33 N. Main St.

The hurricane also exacted a terrible toll on East End villages. Striking without warning, it found village children in their schoolrooms, Wednesday matinees in progress at the movies, and shops up and down Main Street doing business as usual. By that afternoon a giant tree with a 10-ton trunk had crashed down on North Main Street, the biggest of the many toppled trees, inspiring this lament from one observer: “The scene in many of our streets as night descended, with practically all of our old monarchs lying prostrate and tangled, was one of utter desolation and almost beyond belief.”

Working a 2-man saw

The Southampton Elementary School on Pine Street, brand new in 1938, was built of brick with a slate roof. The brick stood up to the violent winds but slabs of slate were lifted into the air and became dangerous projectiles. Students were issued football helmets and evacuated to the high school gymnasium. That building also had a slate roof and a high school student later recalled a slab of slate coming through the window of her classroom and slicing in half the chair her teacher had left only moments before.

In Southampton the next morning crews were out before dawn working to restore electric power, which had failed completely. Rubberneckers with cameras were not far behind, undaunted by trees leaning precariously over roadways, tangled wires underfoot and debris-filled streets. Everywhere was the sound of handsaws as the work of repairing and rebuilding began. A local newspaper reported that it was almost impossible to purchase an ax in all of Suffolk County on Thursday or Friday. Kerosene lamps, photographic film, pails, tools and candles were also in short supply.

The Next One

There is data to indicate that a category 3 hurricane like the catastrophic 1938 storm can be expected to hit Long Island every 68 years. That theoretical grace period ended in 2006, even as beachfront construction has only increased. Today, with weather satellites, radar and other forecasting improvements, any killer hurricane heading toward Southampton will be preceded by far more warning. There will be ample time to evacuate people.

But where will they go and how will they get there? And what if it’s even worse in some respects than the last one? The late Richard Hendrickson, the region’s local weather expert, once speculated that the unprecedented speed of the 1938 hurricane may actually have prevented the catastrophic flooding that would likely have occurred if the storm had lingered longer over Long Island. Had it been slower, he reckoned, it might well have flooded the South Fork and washed away half of both eastern forks, then gone on to flood the Long Island Sound and raise water levels all the way to the city.

One thing is certain: in the Hamptons, a far more populous place than in 1938, the potential for a devastating hurricane will always be present.


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