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The Long Island Express hurricane of 1938

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78 years ago this month

At 3:30 PM on September 21, 1938, a 16-foot storm surge crashed onto the shore of Long Island. Waves ranging from 30 to 50 feet swept houses and families right out to sea. Other people grabbed onto telephone poles to try to hang on in 180+mph winds while millions of tons of seawater pounded the coast.

Hurricanes are the most destructive force in nature. The worst one to hit the Northeastern United States blew in with little warning. It is known today as the Long Island Express. Back in 1938, of course, the U.S. Weather Bureau (as the National Weather Service was known) didn't have satellites, radar, or offshore buoys to help predict a storm's track. So when a powerful storm was tracked off Virginia on September 21, forecasters expected the storm to go out to sea over the Atlantic. But it didn't. The Long Island Express moved directly north, and it moved at 70mph, the fastest forward speed ever recorded for a hurricane.

The storm surge actually created the Shinnecock inlet, permanently changing the shape of the coastline. In between waves, the sea floor was left dry. The storm shook the earth hard enough that it registered on a seismograph thousands of miles away in Alaska.

High tide was even higher than usual on September 21, 1938, because of the autumnal equinox and new moon. On Long Island and Connecticut, tides of 14 to 18 feet were recorded, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. Sand buried Montauk Highway, and the Long Island Rail Road tracks were torn up and twisted. Westhampton Beach, a mile inland, was flooded with 8 feet of water. In Westhampton, an entire movie theater was swept out to sea; about 20 people at a matinee and the projectionist drowned.

In Montauk, the hurricane came close to wiping out the fishing industry. 150 fishermen were left homeless; about 100 houses were damaged. (Six houses wound up in Fort Pond.) Dozens of boats were blown inland; others were lost at sea. Tons of sand obliterated the oyster and clam beds.

The death toll for the storm was 700. 63,000 people were left homeless and two billion trees were destroyed.

· 1938 Hurricane [NOAA]