August 27th, 2011
08:04 PM ET

Tough lessons from 1938's Long Island Express reverberate today

Though they are rare, this is not the Northeast's first time dealing with a hurricane.

On September 21, 1938, a hurricane, later to be known as the Long Island Express, came roaring up the Eastern Seaboard over Long Island and through parts of New England with a fury beyond any coastal storm in the memory of the people living there.

According to the U.S. Weather Service, it had already been raining for days ahead of the storm and the tide was near its highest point when the storm made landfall.  The effect of the storm surge was devastating, the destruction of property immense and the loss of life severe.

Where it hit, the storm took most residents by surprise.  No early warning came telling them to get out of the way.  No substantial preparations to structures had been made.

In 1938, the methods of tracking storms moving up the coastline relied on radio communications from sailors on ships at sea and from people on the coast trained to keep their eyes on the darkening skies.  In this case, that system failed.

In Peg Van Patten's 2010 article for NOAA's ClimateWatch magazine, "A Hurricane in New England," she describes how forecasters and storm trackers made assumptions that once the storm turned northward away from Florida it would spin off into the North Atlantic; most storms like it did.  The ships that would have been watching moved away to avoid that spinoff.  As a result, no hurricane warnings were issued for the Long Island or New England areas.

Even had they gotten a warning, few coastal residents of New England had ever experienced a major hurricane, so their awareness of how to prepare was nowhere near what their counterparts in Southern states such as Florida and North Carolina could muster.  The knowledge of how to prepare the homes and buildings to withstand the winds, how to prepare for enduring the storm as it hit and the knowledge of how to best evacuate if necessary were not things most people considered.

Sparing no one because of social status, the storm hit the wealthy and poor alike.

On the coast of Connecticut, in Fenwick, actress Katharine Hepburn struggled to survive in her family home as it collapsed around her.  She would later recall the despair of seeing her house float away in her autobiography, "Me."

In Newport, Rhode Island, gilded-age mansions built by families named Vanderbilt and Astor took the brunt of the storm.

"The Hurricane of 1938" by Aram Goudsouzian describes the drama in nearby Conanicut Island, where a school bus full of children stalled on a causeway just as the storm surge hit.  The father of four of those children, Joseph Matoes Sr., saw what was about to happen and tried in vain to get the school bus driver to turn around.

Unable to reach them, he watched helplessly as the surge washed over the bus while the driver tried to help the children to the safety of the shore.  The wave swept most of them away.  Only one student, 12-year-old boy Clayton Chellis, and the driver were strong enough to escape and swim to safety.  All four of Matoes' children perished.

No harbor in the path of the Long Island Express was left fully intact and no coastal community was spared.  No survivors were left untouched by some measure of grief.  Taking a lesson from the tragedy of 1938, weather-minded scientists and innovators began developing and utilizing improved methods for tracking storms and for alerting the populations of coastal communities about the approach of killer hurricanes.

Today, Hurricane Irene is moving toward New York and New England.  The people there know it's coming, but will they take heed of the lessons of 1938?

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Filed under: Hurricane Irene • Hurricanes • Weather
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. dave

    Of course not.

    August 27, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sean

    I see someone's cynical. I think otherwise.

    August 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bizen

    National Weather Service. Gosh darn socialism.

    August 27, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy©

    Perhaps they will heed the lessons of 1938, but judging by some of the comments on other threads, it's much, much easier just to ignore the warnings or make fun of Obama for issuing them.

    August 27, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. George Patton

    I am a mindless Tea Partier spewing my senseless comments on this web page. It just goes on and on!!! I can't help it!!! I'm repulsive, and that is that!!!

    August 28, 2011 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
  6. Marti

    Well, thanks for sharing, George Patton.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ahmed

    Those were the days...

    August 28, 2011 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
  8. RUFFNUTT (elf slayer & 15th level human warrior )

    1938 was a looooong time ago... we are way smarter now..

    August 28, 2011 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
  9. Emmanuel

    I was 13 yrs. old in 1938 and have vivid memories of the hurricane in Somerville, MA. It was fun being outdoors during the brunt of the storm, trying to keep the wind from blowing me down. I mostly remember getting an electric shock when I brushed up against a utility pole. Most of the neighborhood trees were uprooted. I don't believe we had any advance warning of the storm. We should be grateful that it is different of the advantages of "big government".

    August 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  10. raven

    @Emmanuel: Sounds like you have lived a long and charmed life! And hey to all my blog pals.. hope you are safe and sound,each and every one of you.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  11. raven

    Hello? (tap,tap) This thing on ?

    August 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. gung hoe

    Blog blog blog da blogj blog da blme da da da da da da that waz a safety test past it and you oh raven

    August 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hoover923

    Excellent article. Very interesting historical take on the storm. Need to hear more from this journalist!

    August 30, 2011 at 7:22 am | Report abuse |
  14. Looking for Info

    What hit Long Island in 1938 was a Cat 3 storm. By the time Irene got to New York it was a tropical storm. Lots of rain, but far less wind.

    August 30, 2011 at 9:05 am | Report abuse |
  15. riocasa1

    I have seen my share of hurricanes living in Rhode Island . I do remember hurricane Carol when it hit and how downtown Providence wad under water. I also put on a bathing suit and went outside to ride the water running down the sidewalk gutters. My mom ran out of the house to grab me before I went down the sewer. Today they classify this last storm as a hurricane when it came close to NYC it was a fairly tale, but not for the news agencies. They jumped up and down to get this little blow into the news as a major storm and it was a record rain setter at best.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |