'Nobody expected it': The monster storm that pummeled LI 80 years ago

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The storm struck on Sept. 21, 1938 as a Category 3 hurricane. The storm struck on Sept. 21, 1938 as a Category 3 hurricane.
Damage from the Hurricane of 1938. Damage from the Hurricane of 1938.
The remnants of a structure after the storm. The remnants of a structure after the storm.
WEST HAMPTON -

Long before Florence, Maria, Sandy or Irene, there was the "Long Island Express" -- one of the most powerful storms in modern times that barreled into the South Shore with little warning and forever altered Long Island's geography.

That day on Sept. 21, 1938, Long Islanders were going about their business, oblivious to the Category 3 hurricane that was racing their way with the speed of an express train.

Otis Bradley was a child growing up in Westhampton when it hit, but he still remembers the Hurricane of 1938 like it was yesterday.

"At noon the hurricane hit and it was devastating, and nobody expected it," Bradley recalls. "It came and came, and all of a sudden the house that we were in was underwater. It went from the first floor to the second floor to the third floor."

The hurricane formed in the eastern Atlantic on Sept. 15, and in days it had become a 160-mph monster. Forecasters expected the storm to move out to sea, but instead it sped straight toward Long Island.

MORE: Interviews with survivors

Lois Davis was in school in Westhampton the day the storm hit.  

"One by one, you would see the cherry trees come down just like that on the cars - but you didn’t hear a thing.  All you heard was the wind, which blew and blew and blew, and was very frightening," Davis says.

Winds gusted to 120 mph. The hurricane packed a 12- to 15-foot storm surge with 30-foot waves that combined to destroy thousands of homes. The storm caused more than 60 deaths Island-wide. 

The water on Main Street in Westhampton got as high as 8 feet, according to Jon Stanat, of the town's historical society. But Dune Road bore the brunt of the storm's fury.

"Almost all of the houses out there had been washed away," Stanat says. "I think there were close to 180 houses on Dune Road before the storm, and only 26 afterwards."

The storm moved with such speed that people had little time to prepare.

"I remember seeing my father come up from the farm and said, 'We have to get out of here, I just saw a house come over the bridge right down the road by our duck farm,'" says Jean Wilcox Tuttle, of Speonk.

After battering Long Island, the hurricane roared into New England. In all, 700 people lost their lives in what remains the strongest hurricane to hit the Northeast in modern times.

More Information on the Hurricane of 1938:
Newsday Coverage
Info at SUNYSuffolk.edu
Info at Weather.gov
Yahoo.com - Archival Videos of the Storm
FireIsland.news Info

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