As Anniversary Approaches, Residents Share Memories from Hurricane of 1938

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The Sag Harbor Old Whalers Presbyterian Church steeple was toppled by the Hurricane of 1938. Photograph courtesy of the Sag Harbor Historical Society Collection.

Kathryn Evans Gerecke recalls watching the havoc unfold before her eyes from the relative safety of her Sag Harbor home in the early afternoon of September 21, 1938.

Kathryn Evans Gerecke, who lived in Sag Harbor during the hurricane of 1938, photographed in her Union Street home on September 11. Michael Heller photo.

She and her St. Andrew’s School classmates had been dismissed early due to the unexpected arrival of a fast-moving storm and those who could not walk home through the incessant rain and gusting wind inevitably made their way to the Union Street house that she shared with her parents, Anne and Frank, and brothers, Frank and George.

From her front window, Ms. Gerecke, her parents and siblings, along with about a dozen of her stranded classmates, watched in awe as the then-unnamed storm — which would later earn the nickname “The Long Island Express” as it remains the fastest moving hurricane ever recorded — systematically knocked over tree after tree in the grove that once stood across the street.

The Sag Harbor Methodist Church after the storm. Photograph courtesy of the Sag Harbor Historical Society Delores Zebrowski Collection.

Both Ms. Gerecke and her friends, whom she remembers as being more excited than scared for the few hours they were trapped inside, were looking out the family room window when it happened.

“We heard a big bang and, the next thing we knew, the Presbyterian Church steeple was gone,” said Ms. Gerecke, who was 12 at the time and still calls the same Union Street house home. “It just blew down.”

Though the 92-year-old says she cannot completely trust some of her memories from the Hurricane of 1938 that made landfall on the East End 80 years ago this Friday, September 21 — “Right now, at my age, you often wonder how much actually happened and what you’ve imagined,” she explains — Ms. Gerecke says she vividly recalls watching the storm’s destruction.

A strong gust of wind effortlessly pushed the steeple of the historic Old Whalers’ Church off its base, sending it crashing to the earth below.

98-year-old Hurricane of ’38 survivor George Boziwick, standing in the same house in which he rode out the hurricane, holds a photograph of his house that was taken shortly after it on Monday, September 10. Michael Heller photo.

“It did not topple — it sheared off,” said 98-year-old George Boziwick of Sag Harbor who was walking home from his job at the nearby Bulova Watchcase Factory with a friend, Herby Held, shortly after noon on September 21, 1938, as the storm was already pummeling the area.

He explained that another friend, Muriel Lyons, was looking out her back window facing the First Presbyterian Church on Union Street and saw the steeple come down. “She said it sheared right off,” Boziwick recalled. “It slid off the top of the church.”

Though he did not witness the steeple’s destruction, Boziwick said he and Held watched tree after tree get knocked to the ground as they slowly made their way along Main Street in the middle of the storm, also known as the Great New England Hurricane. “I remember a tin roof flying overhead,” Boziwick said. “I was just trying to get home.”

The Methodist Church clock on Madison Street after the story. Photo from “Winds of the Fishtail” by Richard Hendrickson

When he did arrive home, which was then 257 Main Street, a tall tree that once stood in his neighbor’s yard had fallen down, fortunately only delivering a glancing blow to the corner of his family’s home.

Ms. Gerecke and Mr. Boziwick, as were many others in Sag Harbor, were fortunate to emerge mostly unscathed after the fast-moving and deadly hurricane essentially steamrolled the eastern half of Long Island with little warning. The storm was packing 120-mph winds and moving north at an astonishing 47 mph according to a reanalysis completed by the National Hurricane Center, though the forward speed was originally estimated to be between 50 and 70 mph.

The storm, which would be classified today as a Category 3 hurricane under the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, would claim almost 700 lives on Long Island and in New England before eventually dissipating over Canada, according to meteorologists and weather records. The Westhampton Country Club was temporarily transformed into a makeshift morgue in the days immediately following the storm.

The Grainery & Bait Shop on Bay Street. Photograph courtesy of the Sag Harbor Historical Society Joan Bates Tripp Collection.

Prior to making landfall to the west of Westhampton, its storm surge inundating the entirety of Dune Road and leveling nearly every house on the barrier island, the storm spent roughly 11 days building its strength over the open Atlantic. Researchers think it began forming south of the Cape Verde Islands that sit off the northwest coast of Africa on September 9, 1938, and estimate that it was packing sustained winds in excess of 150 mph—making it a Category 5 storm by today’s standards—when it arrived in the Bahamas on September 20. It then accelerated north with remarkable speed, making landfall on Long Island a day later.

Some unfortunate timing, and an unusual dip in the fast-moving jet stream, allowed the Hurricane of 1938 to pick up unprecedented forward speed, according to meteorologist Scott Mandia, the assistant chair and professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College.

“Those kinds of speeds are common in the winter, but not in mid- to late-September,” Mr. Mandia said. “The odds of getting a [Hurricane] Sandy to move that way, or even the Hurricane of ‘38 … is kind of like getting two unlucky rolls of the dice.”

Mr. Mandia explained that a similar jet stream scenario occurred in 2012, though Hurricane Sandy’s forward speed was closer to that of hurricanes that tend to advance between 10 and 20 mph. But the jet stream allowed Sandy to take an untraditional path along the coast before turning west and making landfall just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey. The storm’s windspeed had decreased to around 80 mph by then, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to later downgrade it to a “post-tropical cyclone” in a report.

Main Street, Sag Harbor after the hurricane. Sag Harbor Historical Society Linda Matlles Schiavoni Collection.

Eighty years ago, a lack of modern weather-tracking equipment directly contributed to the high death toll on Long Island and across New England, as most locals had little to no warning before the storm’s arrival. According to Mr. Boziwick, September 21, 1938, started as an average September day—until it started raining.

“I reported for work that morning and the sun was shining,” he recalled. “As we stayed there at work, I noticed it getting dark outside and pretty soon the rain came.

“Torrential rain followed, and the wind came up like crazy, and they dismissed everybody,” he continued, referring to his former bosses at Bulova.

Tom Horn, Sr., who lived in Sag Harbor during the 1938 hurricane, photographed in front of his Meadowlark Lane home on Wednesday, September 12. Michael Heller photo

Sag Harbor native Tom William Horn Sr. was eight and living on Hampton Street when the Hurricane of 1938 blew through. He recalls his father, with whom he shares a name, picking up his younger brother, William, and a cousin, Edward James Horn, early from school in the middle of the storm.

After dropping off his sons at home with their mother, Anna, the senior Mr. Horn then drove his nephew to his home on Bay Street and, on the way back, was almost struck by a falling tree. “As he came down off the hill … on Hampton Road, the tree in back of him fell right across the road,” Tom William Horn Sr. said.

He added that his father also saw the church steeple fall, sharing the news of its destruction when he arrived home. “A piece of the steeple landed on the [church] porch.”

Pine trees in front of Pierson High School were destroyed by the storm. Sag Harbor Historical Society Linda Matlles Schiavoni Collection.

Horn, his brother and their mother walked around the village the next day to survey the damage, and he remembers being amazed by the number of fallen trees scattered throughout the village, including inside Mashashimuet Park, and the widespread flooding along Main Street. Nearly every single pine tree that had adorned the front lawn of Pierson High School did not survive the storm.

“There might have been a root overturned, but most of them were broken off,” Mr. Horn said. “They seemed to break in half right in the middle.

“The next day you seen these guys with two-man saws … all working on the trees.”

Mr. Boziwick recalls the storm lasting just four or five hours, though it did extensive damage in that short span. He and his neighbors were without power for several days afterward as crews—most armed with two-man saws—worked on clearing blocked roads.

“It was a mess,” Mr. Boziwick said. “There were trees all over the place. The streets near the water were flooded. It took a couple of days for the water to recede.”

Ms. Gerecke also roamed around her hometown the next day to assess the damage, noting that she and her brothers had to climb over trees to get around. She also recalls floodwaters covering all of Bay Street and significant sections of Main Street.

She also remembers not being scared, even in the height of the storm, mostly because she and her classmates were amazed by Mother Nature’s display of strength.

“We were watching things blowing around and trees falling down — we thought it was great,” Ms. Gerecke said. “We’d never seen anything like that before.”

She later added: “I didn’t really know what was going on. It wasn’t until after we walked around the village that we realized what had happened.”

The 80th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938 will be honored on Friday, September 21, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Amagansett U.S. Life-Saving Station on Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett with a book launch for Genie Chipps Henderson’s novel, “A Day Like Any Other,” which chronicles the lives of South Fork residents during the historic storm. Ms. Henderson will also share archival footage of the storm, with copies of her book available for purchase. For more information, visit amagansettlss.org.

 

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