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Sep 12, 2018 9:51 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Long Island Express 80 Years Later: Survivors Share Their Stories

Survivors of the 1938 hurricane. ELSIE BOSKAMP
Sep 12, 2018 12:04 PM

The morning of September 21, 1938, was just like any other. A sheet of clouds hung over Six Corners School in Westhampton Beach, and what was thought to be a passing shower roared overhead as 16-year-old Lois Davis stepped off her school bus—back then, it was a big Buick—and headed for her second-floor classroom.

Twelve-year-old Jean Tuttle came to school that morning from her father’s duck farm in Westhampton Beach and settled into her classroom, which sat just across the hall from the school’s English room. Six-year-old Joyce Kelley arrived from Eastport and eagerly entered her second grade class.

A few miles away, in Quogue, 21-year-old Marian Phillips was getting ready to teach her third grade class. It was her first year of teaching, and her students were all around 9 years old.

It was just another day at school. Or so they thought.

As the day’s lessons carried on, Ms. Davis, now 96, glanced out of the rain-spotted window and saw something she would never forget: Tiny rocks were dancing in the wind and flying up against the side of the old brick schoolhouse. When the stones smashed into the tall, square windows, the glass gave way and began to crack.

At around the same time, in Quogue, Ms. Phillips, now 100, was “watching huge oak trees blow down like toothpicks.”

On the first floor of the Westhampton Beach school, Ms. Tuttle, now 92, and her classmates were huddled in the back of their classroom, and a few of the girls were crying.

What started as a normal Wednesday morning was becoming what Ms. Kelley, now 86, describes as “quite a time.”

The girls were in the path of one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit Long Island in the 20th century. The unnamed Category 3 storm, dubbed the “Long Island Express,” became known as one of the fastest-moving hurricanes on record. It took the lives of 123 people on Long Island that day—29 from Westhampton Beach and two from Quogue—and destroyed almost all of the 179 homes that stood between Quogue and the Moriches Inlet on Dune Road.

“It was strange,” Ms. Davis remembered on Monday, September 10, nearly 80 years after that fateful September morning. To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the storm, the Westhampton Beach Historical Society hosted the event, at which the women shared their stories from that stormy September day. The women sat in a circle at the historical society’s building, on Mill Road in Westhampton Beach, and took a step back in time.

Eight decades after the deadly hurricane, on a gray and rainy evening in Westhampton Beach—much like the early hours of September 21, 1938, when the forecast called for clouds and scattered showers—the women remembered that day, which they say has become burned into their memories.

“I went upstairs into the girls’ locker room, which looked out west,” Ms. Davis recalled. “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. It was really frightening.”

The wind gusted up to 186 mph that day, picking up furniture, cars, boats and even homes and spitting them out across the tiny town.

Jackie Bennett, who was just 4 years old at the time, and not yet in school, said that a house floated across the bay and landed at the back door of her parents’ house, the building that currently houses Starr Boggs restaurant in Westhampton Beach.

The students in Westhampton Beach filed into the gymnasium around midday and waited to be taken home. Ms. Tuttle returned to her father’s duck farm, Ms. Davis took the Buick back to her Remsenburg home, and a few teenage students took Ms. Kelley to her grandfather’s duck farm in Eastport. In Quogue, Ms. Phillip’s brother-in-law, who lived in Riverhead, picked her up.

The youngest of the schoolkids, Ms. Kelley, arrived in Eastport to find her road, Seatuck Avenue, littered with broken trees and hanging wires. Since the car couldn’t drive down the street, she walked.

“My mother said that when I arrived at the house down at the duck farm, my eyes were as big as saucers—I guess I was pretty scared,” Ms. Kelley said, smiling. “But, anyway, I made it okay … and we all survived.”

The storm had quieted by early afternoon and many went about their day—the worst, however, was still yet to come.

By 3 p.m. Dune Road in Westhampton Beach began to flood. The water, which towered nearly 8 feet high, crept through Main Street and poured onto Mill Road, bringing with it tokens of local lives.

“We had a backyard full of boats—well, not full, but several boats, and people’s chairs and refrigerators, and all kinds of stuff coming up,” Ms. Phillips said.

Westhampton Beach was nearly inhabitable during the three months following the wreckage. The government sent in reinforcements to help local law enforcement search for missing people and sort through the rubble of once admirable beach homes. The storm rolled through Westhampton Beach, leaving its mark on both the village and the people living in it. For the group that survived the hit, memories of the storm have circled over their heads since that gloomy September day.

“A lot’s happened. So, on to the next one,” Ms. Phillips said.

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