Living through the 1938 Hurricane

Two personal stories
hurricane

Above: The ’38 hurricane rolled through Dune Road, breaching the mainland; pictured here is Beach Lane in Quogue. Click here to view potential of how far inland storm surges might travel.

Recollection by John Post

Such wreckage in the heart of the village…

john-postAs we contemplate the state of our beaches and dunes, the worry is that what happened in September 1938 could happen again. Twenty-three people died in Westhampton. In Quogue three young men died attempting a rescue.

What follows are memories drawn largely drawn from two excellent publications available in libraries “The 1938 Hurricane As We Remember It” Volume I & II. The personal stories and related pictures are very hard to believe and really scary.

In Westhampton, including Westhampton Beach and what is now Westhampton Dunes, 179 beach homes were destroyed and the few left were uninhabitable. Seven new inlets were created between the Moriches Inlet and Quogue.

The storm surge reached six feet on Main Street. The inlet formed at the Quantuck Beach Club washed the clubhouse to a lawn in Quogue.

Quogue came through much better than Westhampton but the hurricane breached the dunes at the western end and throughout the village flooding and tree damage from the wind left a mess.

The Quantuck surge drove a foot of water to the intersection of Quogue Street and Jessup Avenue. The bridge to Quiogue was gone and the railroad was washed out at Fairy Dell (by the Wildlife Refuge). The west side of Quogue was flooded. There were two over-washes, a small one at the Surf Club damaging the club, the bridge on Beach Lane and flowing into Ogden’s Pond.

C-overwash-photo

(The 1938 hurricane flattened the dunes, the overspill reaching across Dune Road and beyond.)

The larger one was to the east of the Beach Club at 156–162 Dune Road. That pushed sand almost to the canal and destroyed one house and damaged others. [a smaller version happened in this area with Sandy]

The east wind pushed water from Shinnecock Bay into Quogue, taking out the bottom floor of the Yacht Club, flooding the golf course and almost reaching Quanquanatuck Road. My brother told me of small animals, rabbits, mice and snakes fleeing before the rising waters.

The storm came so suddenly there was little preparation and many in Westhampton did not evacuate the beach in time. Today we would have heard about the approaching system days in advance, as we did with Sandy. It also came after no major storms in memory so no one could conceive the true threat.

I have an aerial photo of Quogue before the storm and many houses seem to be right on the beach with almost no dunes for protection. These houses were hard hit and this quote from the book gives a sense of the shock and its suddenness:

“At that moment,” wrote Peggy Stanton, “a huge wave washed over the house next to ours, the O’Hara house, tearing away the whole right side of the building.”

John J. Post

Recollection by Pieter Greeff

My Mom waded into the water with me on her shoulders

pieter-greeffAs the last person alive to leave the beach at Quogue during the eye of the 1938 hurricane – Otis Bradley was trapped at a childrens’ party in Westhampton Beach – I can add a memory or two to John Post’s contribution. While only aged 3 1/2 then, there are certain things succinctly remembered.

Our house was at XXX Dune Road. The air conditioner in my little room blew in and sand began to pile up against the door. My mother forced it open, got me out and put me in the back seat of the garaged Dodge with a pack of cards to play with. (Doubtless it is why I eventually went on to a career in the great casino of Wall Street.) Next door to the West was the Penniman “cottage” where the barrier dune was at a very low spot.

The first part of the storm featured very high wind. Mother watched as a back porch ice chest, filled with blocks of ice, took off as if made of paper and was wind borne away into the marsh to the North of the Dune Road. She had talked by telephone with Mrs. Gilbert (Peggy Stanton’s mother) who had rented the house for the summer and had decided to go East with her children when the eye came. (She and family ended up spending the night in the Tiana Beach Life Saving Station feeling lucky to be alive.)

But we went West. The eye of the hurricane featured the sun coming out, seagulls flying around and an eerie calm. The Dodge held my mother, me and Lizzie, our elderly cook who had been in the room as a sixteen year old servant girl when my father was born at home. We made it to the Quogue beach Club.

With water over the engine, the auto stopped. We got out into the water, my mother carrying me on her shoulders. Wading up to their necks, Mom and Lizzie struggled through the water to the old bridge at the end of Beach Lane.

There Quogue’s one village taxi, owned and run by Mr. Randall, awaited a Beach Club patron who never arrived, having walked away much earlier before Mr. Randall had arrived.

Things were beginning to blow again so we climbed into Randall’s taxi and went off to the von Hennig’s house where Schweste Marie, a Swiss friend of Lizzie, took care of two children roughly my contemporaries, Pupa and Dieter. The second half of the hurricane arrived, featuring the tidal wave which carried away the Penniman cottage, two Cauchois houses, half of East House, belonging to Johnny Post’s family & later rented to John O’Hara, and possibly several others between our house and the Quogue Beach Club.

My father, working in the city, had seen the hurricane pennant atop the W.R. Grace building in the City and, having been a Navy pilot in World War I, knew what it meant. He caught that afternoon’s last train east to Long Island, The storm hit and blew down trees over the tracks so that several times the men on the train had to go outside with fire axes and chop them away. Finally in the dead of night, the train could go no further than Speonk.

Dad took off on foot. By chance he had a hundred dollar bill in his pocket. When he came upon a farm house, he woke up the farmer and offered him the $100 bill if the man would drive him immediately to Quogue.

Dad arrived in Quogue at daybreak and happened upon Reggie Cauchois trudging towards the damaged bridge. They made their way across the canal on the one remaining span still left on the ruined bridge, found the inert Dodge at the other wise, and walked to inspect the desolation.

Our house, miraculously, was saved because Mr. Abe Post had advised the parents to build it well back of the dunes. Of course the dunes were flattened. Soon, however, they were completely rebuilt as a prime Village priority to save the whole village from the winter storms that would soon arrive. Old cars, trees, detritus from ruined houses were all piled up and covered with sand to create new dunes. Today’s vestigial dune is already far behind that line Northward and desperately needs rebuilding and maintenance lest future storms cause a breakthrough. Thus, in my opinion, beach maintenance in Quogue still remains a strategic survival priority.

Pieter Greeff