September 21, 1938, dawned slightly overcast, with a pale, but shining, sun and a stiff breeze. It had been a wet summer on the East End, and several days of rain had left the ground saturated, so even a hint of sunshine was welcome.
With summer officially over and local schools back in session, residents went about their usual business—heading off to work in offices and stores, attending social events, or setting out in boats to catch fish.
It was a day like any other.
But, within hours, all that changed, as one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes in the history of Long Island arrived quickly and without warning, roaring through the region with such ferocity and speed that it earned the nickname the “Long Island Express.”
The storm went on to cross Long Island Sound, where it also decimated coastal communities in Connecticut and Rhode Island, killing close to 1,000 people before it was done. Locally, it took the steeples off several churches, including the massive one that rose 180 feet above the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. It created the Shinnecock Inlet and brought in so much sand that Cedar Island in Northwest Harbor became a peninsula.
This was a storm the likes of which no living person on the East End has ever seen—before or since.
“The minute you move out here, it’s one of the first things you hear about, especially during hurricane season,” said Genie Chipp Henderson, whose new novel, “A Day Like Any Other” (Pushcart Press), is set on the South Fork—primarily East Hampton—during the 1938 hurricane.
“I was struck by the fact that, at the time, no one knew it was coming. All these people were going about their business when it hit. At what point did people realize this is not a normal storm—this is something else?
“That’s what intrigued me about writing the book.”
Next Friday, September 21, marks the 80th anniversary of the 1938 hurricane, and, to observe the occasion, Ms. Henderson will speak about her book at the Amagansett U.S. Life-Saving Station on Atlantic Avenue. The author, who works as a video archivist at LTV Studios in Wainscott, also will screen historic footage of East Hampton before and after the storm, some by the New Deal Agency, known then as the Works Progress Administration.
“I just came across an incredible film that the WPA shot after the hurricane. That was the only way the whole area could be helped,” Ms. Henderson explained during an interview at LTV. “It’s in the public domain, and they have incredible storm footage. It really shows how destructive it was.
“We had the stills of the aftermath but no real footage of the storm. When you see those waves, it’s hard to conceive of how destructive that storm was,” added Ms. Henderson, who said the storm hit the south shore with such force that it registered on a seismograph in Alaska.
The choice of the Amagansett U.S. Life-Saving Station as the location for this event is fitting, given that one of the fictional families in Ms. Henderson’s novel lives near the ocean in a house across the street. It’s just one example of how her book, which is peppered with details of very real people and places affected by the hurricane, merges the fictional and factual. Those who have heard the anecdotes from residents who lived through the storm will likely recognize a fair number of situations and individuals portrayed in “A Day Like Any Other.”
For example, Bridgehampton farmer and longtime weather service observer Richard Hendrickson, who died in 2016 at the age of 103, is present in the form of Virgil Cobb, an amateur meteorologist who’s uneasy about what he sees on September 21 while compiling the morning report at his backyard weather station. Though Hendrickson was just 24 years old when the hurricane hit, in the book Ms. Henderson portrays Cobb as a much older man, as most people living here now remember him.
Also included in the book is the locally famous story, often told by Mr. Hendrickson himself, of an East End man who had ordered a barometer through the mail. The instrument happened to arrive on the morning of the hurricane with a barometric pressure reading so low that the man was certain it was broken.
Today, weather forecasters have access to sophisticated technology in predicting what a storm will do, but in 1938 there was no radar, and forecasts were based on firsthand accounts from ships at sea or observers on land.
“The Weather Bureau wasn’t a government agency then. It’s interesting how stringers worked all the way up the coast,” Ms. Henderson said. “They were getting their information from people like Mr. Hendrickson.”
Another key figure in Ms. Henderson’s book is based on a real-life trainee at the Washington, D.C., Weather Bureau, which, in 1938, was still part of the Department of Agriculture. Based on the reports coming in, the young man was convinced the hurricane would not turn out to sea after passing the Carolinas, but instead would track north along the coast and actually accelerate as it neared the heavy population centers of the Northeast.
Of course, he was right—but his was a lone voice at the bureau. His superiors disagreed with his forecast and never issued hurricane warnings for Long Island.
Other characters in the book include Judy Tate, a resident of Dune Road in Bridgehampton, who is throwing a birthday party for her 4-year-old daughter. Her story is based on the true harrowing tale of a children’s party on Dune Road in Westhampton Beach in which the house literally broke apart as the storm roared in.
“All the stories are based on the real stories, though some of my characters are completely made up,” Ms. Henderson said. “In doing the research, if I found a story I really loved, I developed a character who could tell that story.
“But Virgil Cobb is definitely Richard Hendrickson,” she freely admitted.
As an LTV archivist, Ms. Henderson had access to many videotaped interviews, and she learned much about the storm from a series called “Autumn Project,” in which East Hampton journalist Julia Mead interviewed East Hampton old-timers. Among them was Milt Miller, who gave Ms. Henderson the inspiration not only for the family on Atlantic Avenue but also for a hermit-like character who lives in isolation in a rudimentary shack on the beach.
“In the video, Milt started talking about this beachcomber. He described how he lived, the cats he had, but he said he was somebody ‘we just let alone,’” Ms. Henderson recalled. “I loved the idea of the beachcomber. He became my character who embodied the feeling of the kind of intangible, magical way about life out here—this kind of unexplained mysteriousness.
“Milt Miller was a salt-of-the-earth type. He was born on Atlantic Avenue in the last house before the ocean, and he gives an incredible description of the house and how they lived,” she continued. “The little boy Eddie in my book is who I imagined Milt was as a young man.”
Though the publication of “A Day Like Any Other” coincides with a major anniversary of the storm, Ms. Henderson notes that it wasn’t written with that in mind. For years, she has been eager to write a book about the 1938 hurricane and read anything and everything that came out about it. She was just about to start the book when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. She dropped the idea, concerned that she would be capitalizing on the tragedy.
“The characters were sitting there in my head, saying, ‘What happened to you?’ It didn’t go away,” Ms. Henderson said. “After a couple years, I thought, ‘Okay, I can get back to it.’ I worked on it a long time but sort of as a weekend project.”
The novel that Ms. Henderson eventually wrote is somewhat different than her original concept, which was to explore the effect a hurricane the size and strength of the ’38 storm would have on the East End should it hit today. With far more people, infrastructure and massive homes on the beach now, most experts agree the devastation would be calamitous.
“I think what gave me the idea for the original book was a badly taped lecture in Montauk 10 or so years ago,” she said. “The person talking said that we are rolling out the red carpet for a big storm that’s going to hit. With the new buildings and the roads and the destruction of dunes that protect us from the sea, it would be catastrophic.”
“In 1812, there was an enormous hurricane that took out all the forests of Long Island. Then there was the hurricane of 1938,” Ms. Henderson added with a note of caution in her voice.
“They say these storms come about every 100 years—we’re at 80 years now.”
On Friday, September 21, from 5 to 7 p.m., the 80th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938 will be observed at the Amagansett U.S. Life-Saving Station, 160 Atlantic Avenue. The event, which is free and open to the public, celebrates the launch of Genie Chipp Henderson’s novel “A Day Like Any Other.” Archival footage of the storm will be shown and Ms. Henderson will read from her book. Copies will be available for purchase. For details visit amagansettlss.org or call 631-527-7317.
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