The Hurricane of 1938

By:  Bob Smith


The East Williston Historic Committee interviewed Ellen Distler and Jean Koistinen about East Williston in the 1930’s. this article about the Hurricane of 1938 includes their memories of this event.



            Hurricanes hardly ever happen in Hampshire Professor Higgins told Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but they certainly happen on Long Island. And the hurricane of September 21, 1938, was the grandaddy of them all as far as Long Island was concerned. Force 3 winds of over 132 mph struck almost without warning. Weather bureaus didn't have the sophisticated tracking devices they do now, so the forecasts for that Wednesday were not alarming anywhere in the Northeast. It had rained for the preceding four days in New York City and on Long Island and had been windless and sultry. Mineola had recorded 3.1 inches on one day, its monthly total all at once. The New York Times forecast for that fateful Wednesday called for "more rain for today and tomorrow cooler." Not a hint of the hurricane that was sweeping up along the Atlantic coast from Florida, except for a note on the editorial page about the fine work of the Jacksonville weathermen in covering the storm. Hurricane warnings were posted all the way to Atlantic City but nothing north of there.


It had been a wet day with increasing winds and by 2PM schools were beginning to dismiss students all over the Island and the City. Anxious parents gathered as the rain pelted down. Large branches were routinely falling and trees were toppling, their roots loosened by days of rain. By 3PM the outer reaches of the storm were touching the Island at Cherry Grove on Fire Island. Winds of 55mph were common with gusts in the 70's. This was the first time the hurricane had touched land since its origin off the Cape Verde Islands of Africa the week before. By 4PM the full power of the hurricane had struck. 105mph winds with gusts above 130 were pummeling the center of the Island and stretching their force across the entire Island. The hurricane was headed on a NNE path across Long Island Sound toward Rhode Island. Weather stations were being toppled along with church steeples; houses along the shore were being uprooted, jetties destroyed, boats driven inland. As the rapidly moving storm now assailed New England, the gales in its wake unleashed almost as much damage. Most trees were uprooted by the winds that followed the storm. Power stations were flooded in Manhattan, the Bronx lost electric power, and the newly opened Independent Line was shut-down.


By six o'clock we were in the backlash, but New England was in the full throes of it. And they had never seen anything like it. Coastal areas were devastated from Connecticut to Massachusetts. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island, was flooded by nearly 14 feet of water driven by the giant tidal wave which accompanied the storm, which, as you will note, did not have a name as they do now. The sun had been shining on Providence only two hours before. It was that tidal wave, and the rain, which wiped out south shore communities on the East End. Westhampton Beach, Saltaire, Oak Beach, all recorded tales of horror and bravery during those two to three apocalyptic hours. Saltaire's village hall became an island for survivors as the angry seas cut it off from land.

Ellen Distler and Jean Koistenen remember that fateful day. "I was at Hofstra," Jean said, "and had to get home. One of the boys at college came from Williston Park and offered me a ride but he didn't tell me I'd have to sit in the rumble seat. I was soaking wet when we got to East Williston. As soon as I got home my mother said we had to go to Williston Park to rescue friends who had been flooded out. We drove down to the railroad, ­parked and went over to the flooded area where my mother's friend and her children were helped out of a rowboat. They stayed with us until the water receded. I do remember that the LIRR never stopped running that day though I believe telephone service was broken."


[Tom Mohrman, East Williston Historian, notes that the flooded area in Williston Park centered about Stratford and Cornell streets where there was a pond.


Ellen Distler remembers that her father did get home from the city that day but under tremendous odds. "People were panicking. There was a big tree on the Jonas property, they lived west of us on the corner of Fairview and Roslyn Rd. It was an enormous willow, and it began to bend wildly in the wind. My mother and I stood at a window on that side of our house with great trepidation because we wanted to get out of the house before it was crushed by the tree. We watched and watched, fearful and fascinated. If I wasn't on guard, my mother was. All of a sudden the tree made a tremendous swerve - and collapsed on the Jonas garage. We weren't happy but, we were very relieved."


            Eventually, the death toll of the hurricane was listed at 380 and the cost at $4 billion 1938 dollars and at that time a house in East Williston could be had for four thousand dollars.   This hurricane didn’t have the visual or metaphoric appeal of the two which devastated Florida a few years before:  the 1926 storm flattened Miami Beach and burst the land bubble which had until then been dubbed “the Florida Boom”. Miami’s business district was under 4 feet of water and Ocean Drive was covered by 2 feet of sand.  The cost then totaled $159 million (1926) dollars.  Now it is estimated that a similar storm would cost $100 billion.   The hurricane of 1935 struck the Florida Keys like a thief in the night.  It was upon them little more than a day after it was formed, killed hundred, wiped out the railroad to Key west and isolated the Keys for almost three years.  It resulted in at least three films, four or five novels, and uncounted magazine stories about the horrors of this and all hurricanes.


            Do you know the title of any films made about the 1935 hurricane? Can it happen again?  Sure.  Will it? Of course.  But since it’s a natural phenomenon it only has to move a hundred miles in either direction to leave us safe and sound.  My advice, however, is not to read too much about these storms.  You won’t sleep comfortably for a least one night.