"Long Island Express" Hurricane, 1938

The deadly 1938 hurricane known as the Long Island Express roared into Elsie Warta's life seven decades ago with a ferocity she remembers to this day.

She was working as a waitress at a restaurant on Napeague Harbor, just west of Montauk, when the wind and water started to pound against the windows.

"I let out a scream: 'The ocean. The ocean is coming in,'" Warta, a 90-year-old Lindenhurst resident, recalled this week. The Coast Guard evacuated the restaurant to a nearby station, but it, too, was buffeted by fierce waves. "We stayed there all night. If it hadn't stopped when it did, we would have gone out to sea. ... Thank God we were there the next morning."

Warta's eyewitness account of Long Island's most devastating hurricane is part of an exhibit on the storm's 70th anniversary: "Eye on the Storm: Long Island's Dangerous Coast," sponsored by Allstate, which opened earlier this summer at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. It features recovered artifacts from the great storm that killed more than 600 people -- about 50 on eastern Long Island -- as the hurricane plowed north across the South and North Forks and into New England. The exhibit, which also includes video testimony from survivors, runs through Oct. 26.

The museum's history curator, Joshua Ruff, noted the exhibit's timeliness as hurricane season enters its peak, from Aug. 15 to the end of October. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center issued an above-average seasonal outlook yesterday for the Atlantic this year, predicting 14 to 18 named storms, with seven to 10 of them expected to become hurricanes. Three to six are expected to be major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher.

Meteorologists warn that another storm of the stature of the Long Island Express -- named for the speed with which it moved -- could, and likely will, pass this way again.

"Certainly, you could have another storm like that -- that is not open to debate," said Dennis Feltgen, public affairs officer for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "That will happen again. The question we have to ask: 'Are we going to be ready?' We have a lot more people and a lot more property and we are very vulnerable."

The 1938 storm had sustained winds of 111 to 130 mph, which would qualify it as a Category 3 hurricane today.

The storm was considered "one of the most important events in Long Island's history," Ruff said, and that was the reason for the exhibit.

The storm's eye stretched 43 miles, from Brentwood to Mattituck, and it carved out what we now know as Shinnecock Inlet. A 20-foot storm surge swept clean most of the beach at Westhampton and washed away 89 houses in the Village of Saltaire on Fire Island.

Newsreel footage shows the storm soaking roads and waves crashing in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and across the Island. There are rare photographs taken while the storm was coming through Fishers Island.

The exhibit includes roof tiles that were blown off a chicken farm in Bridgehampton and column pieces and a weather vane from a 185-foot spire topping a Sag Harbor church that was knocked down. Sound effects of howling winds and stormy rains play throughout the exhibit.

"We want to get people thinking about what it must have felt like," Ruff said.

by Joie Tyrrell, Newsday, Friday, August 8, 2008




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