Despite the clouds, Greenport brothers Arthur and Jack Levin weren’t fazed by reports of a hurricane speeding up the East Coast. After all, it had missed the southern states and weather predictions showed the storm was headed out to sea.
That morning’s New York Times editorial only boosted their confidence. The editorial hailed the U.S. Weather Bureau’s “unparalleled warning system” for alerting the public to inclement weather. The Times’ opinion piece focused on the hurricane that was expected to slam Florida, but turned eastward, avoiding landfall.
That same day, the bureau’s advisory out of Washington, D.C., made no reference to the same hurricane, which even the most seasoned meteorologists assumed was destined to fizzle out in the Atlantic.
But by mid-afternoon that Wednesday, the wind had begun to pick up in Southold Town.
The brothers sensed something was coming.
Roughly 20 miles away in Riverhead Town, 5-year-old Verna Campbell was settling in to another school day at the newly built Pulaski Street School, the same as any other day, from what she can remember.
School children like Ms. Campbell and then-high school junior Lewis Tomaszewski were sent to school as usual, because experts believed the storm had missed the southern states and was headed out to sea.
“You could see these trees falling,” Mr. Tomaszewski — now 92 years old — told the News-Review.
In her kindergarten class, Verna Campbell and her classmates watched as the storm whipped through the nearby cemetery.
“I was so frightened,” Ms. Campbell recalled. “The sky was gray and eerie and very terrifying. I wanted so desperately to go home.”
But by mid-afternoon, the wind had begun to pick up.
Mr. Tomaszewski remembers waiting for school buses to arrive to take the students home, watching through the windows as the hurricane struck.
As the storm approached, Arthur Levin, then 17, boarded up the windows at this father’s prominent men’s store on Front Street in Greenport village, one of the only stores to do so.
His brother, Jack Levin, had also decided it was time to close up at the Shack — the snack bar at Southold Town beach that he managed. Business was slow that day, anyway.
Around the same time, the whipping breeze had grown into blustering gusts. Arthur stacked sandbags outside his father’s shop before locking himself inside to wait out whatever was about to hit.
“I was a scared 17-year-old that never experienced anything like that before,” Arthur, now 98, recalled.
A half-hour later,
the hurricane that would become known as the “Long Island Express”
unleashed its fury on the East End.
As many as 700 people were killed
Westhampton Beach bore the brunt of the hurricane’s force. The village area was flooded under eight feet of water. A movie theater filled with customers enjoying a matinee reportedly was lifted off its foundation by the storm’s waves and carried two miles out to sea, where it sank – drowning all inside.
The North Fork wasn’t spared either.
Storm surges of nearly 12 feet swept across Southold Town and power lines were torn down by the wind and caught fire, Mr. Stark said.
Fifty residents were also gathered inside the Greenport movie theater that afternoon, according to an article in that week’s Suffolk Times. As the hurricane intensified, the patrons crowded into the lobby to wait out the storm. But the theater — like its South Shore counterpart — began to collapse and those inside scrambled across the street for cover as the building’s back wall caved in.
No one was seriously injured, the article states.
A constable waded through waist-deep water during the height of the storm to rescue two women trapped in a bungalow, according to the article, while parts of the village’s concrete sidewalks were “standing on end.”
The shipyards in Greenport were “demolished,” fishing vessels and personal boats were sunk and East Marion and Orient “presented a sight of utter destruction,” with the steeples of Orient’s Methodist and Congregational churches knocked off, the article states.
In Southold, a 41-year-old man was thrown from his roof and killed as he tried to make repairs during the storm, and most of the town’s trees were uprooted, the Suffolk Times reported.
A young Southold woman was trapped on her yacht during the hurricane and swam nearly a mile to reach the safety of the shore.
A tree crashed through the roof of The Suffolk Times office and the paper was delayed for three days while crews worked to restore power to the printing press.
“We have gone into considerable detail to give you as good an account of the storm as possible,” the newspaper’s publisher, F. Langton Corwin, wrote to readers in the paper’s truncated four-page issue.
We could fill column after column with stories of heroism on the North Fork and descriptions of thousands and thousands of dollars of property damage.”
While the damage in Riverhead was nowhere near as severe as in Westhampton Beach or Southold Town, the town suffered the “most savage storm in years,” according to an article in the County Review. The Peconic River overflowed its banks and tossed boats moored there — including a massive dredge — onto the shore, the article states.
More than 100 trees fell at Riverhead Cemetery and buildings like the Suffolk County Historical Society, the county courthouse, the elementary school on Roanoke Avenue and the high school on Pulaski Street were damaged, according to the article.
A group of “Riverhead lads” also managed to save the life of a woman trying to row across inundated Westhampton Beach, the newspaper reported.
In a special edition filed one week after the disaster, the County Review reported that at Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue the eponymous steeple was lost and a hole was punched through the roof. The church was left a “sorry looking spectacle,” the article states.
On Roanoke Avenue, barns, sheds and garages were blown down and some residents were still without water or electricity one week after the storm.
Along Sound Avenue, fruit was stripped from trees and the belfry and spire of Sound Avenue Hall were knocked down.
Ms. Campbell, now 80, recalled the damage she saw in her neighborhood after she returned home safely with a friend’s parent and the storm had fully passed. She was devastated to find that her favorite maple tree had been struck down by lightning. The tree had symbolized stability to her young mind, Ms. Campbell said.
It took until her teenage years for her to get over her fear of storms, she said.
Mr. Tomaszewski’s family was lucky; their Calverton farm suffered practically no damage in the hurricane.
“It was more the people by the bay. They got hit hard,” he said.
John Yakaboski, who recently turned 100, also recalled the substantial destruction the Express wreaked on the East End.
“That was a bad one,” he said in a brief interview from his Calverton home. “A couple weeks later we took a ride to Westhampton Beach; the seaweed was 20 feet high on the telephone pole.”
A private study done by a risk management company in 2008 showed the storm brought unparalleled destruction to the East End. The damage was equivalent to an F3 tornado, according to the study.
The storm caused $620 million in damage at the time, Mr. Stark said, or roughly $18 billion today. He added that if the 1938 hurricane hit today, it would cause an estimated $41 billion in damage.
Jack headed back to the family’s home on West Street in Greenport.
It slammed into the Northeast as a Category 3 hurricane, with wind speeds gusting to more than 120 mph, toppling nearly two billion trees, according to National Weather Service estimates.
A wall of water estimated at 15 feet crashed over Long Island. The storm made landfall on the South Shore sometime between 2:10 and 2:45 p.m.
As quickly as the storm struck, it was gone, barreling across Long Island Sound into Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts within hours.
“Homes were washed away, roads were washed away, Long Island Rail Road tracks were washed out, any of the fishing industry out here was gone, the apple crop was destroyed, a lot of livestock and farming was destroyed,” National Weather Service meteorologist David Stark said in a recent interview.
“This was a very powerful, very destructive storm no matter how you look at it.”
Speed was partly to blame for the devastation, Mr. Stark said.
The hurricane traveled as fast as 60 mph up the coast — faster than any other storm in recorded history — after it got caught in the jet stream.
Without modern-day technology like satellites and radar, Long Island was caught off guard.
“Back then we were relying on data from ships going across the Atlantic,” Mr. Stark said. “They were thinking it was a tropical storm at that point. They didn’t really see [its] actual strength.”
Greenport was completely “demolished” by the storm, the Levin brothers recalled.
“When the hurricane stopped we walked around and every other tree was down,” Arthur said.
Boats were lying in the middle of the roadways and Claudio’s Restaurant was overtaken by sea water.
When Jack returned to the Shack the next day, he found it had floated clear across Route 48.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Orient resident Ed Latham recalled unprecedented devasta-tion. “Everything was in shambles,” he said.
Then 15 years old, he was attending class at Greenport High School and had no idea a major storm had even struck.
“No one said anything and that school is so solid you’d never know,” he said.
Mr. Latham, now 91, said the first time he laid eyes on the damage was when his father picked him and a friend up from school. The three walked seven miles back to the Latham family farm in Orient, encountering downed trees, wires and floodwaters along the way.
“We went to school that morning on the bus and after lunch the roads were impassable,” he said. “We had to crawl on our bellies to get under the trees in some places.”
Mr. Latham said the storm tore down all the trees on his family’s property and that saltwater devastated crops for the next two years.
But there was a silver lining to the Long Island Express, Arthur Levin said.
“After that, Greenport became prosperous,” he said. “There was a lot of work for people. They had to saw down the trees, repair homes, so there was a lot to do.”
Ten times more people were killed by the Long Island Express than by Sandy.
Sandy brought winds near 80 mph, but Mr. Stark said those winds stayed below hurricane force across most of Long Island.
The storm of 1938, by comparison, had sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph stronger than Sandy’s most powerful gust.
And Sandy’s historic surge, which swamped downtown Greenport and Riverhead, was still at least three feet lower than the tide brought in by the 1938 hurricane.
Meteorologist Stephanie Dunten at the National Weather Service station in Taunton, Mass., said that while other storms may share similar wind speed, storm surge or pressure readings, no other hurricane in the region’s recorded history has combined the different elements to create such a powerful storm.
“All the different storms have bits and pieces of it, but this one has everything,” she said. “It just baffles me.”
Weather experts say the historic nature of the 1938 hurricane’s power means few storms can match the destruction of the Long Island Express.