80 years later, vivid memories of historic Long Island Express hurricane
On Sept. 21, 1938, the Category 3 storm took Long Islanders by
surprise, claiming dozens of lives and turning the East End on its end.
Memories of LI
Express, 80 years later
Some East End residents shared their
memories of the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane at a gathering
hosted Sept. 10 by the Westhampton Beach Historical Society. (Credit:
Randee Daddona; Photo Credit: Westhampton Beach Historical Society, Suffolk
County Historical Society)
Patricia Kitchen firstname.lastname@example.org @patriciakitchen Updated September 21, 2018 10:34 AM
They told stories of a yacht smashing through the front door. Of a
saucer-eyed 6-year-old, making her way home through downed trees and wires. Of
an attic refuge in a home filling with storm surge. Of a reprieve for a sole
surviving featherless chicken.
Eight decades later, some voices cracked with emotion, but there was
laughter, too, as witnesses to the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane shared
recollections — for many still crystal clear after all these years.
“Somebody's house came across the bay and landed at our back door,"
said Jackie Parlato Bennett, 84. “We had to walk through that house to get
out to the yard.”
On Sept. 21, 1938, the Category 3 storm took Long Island by surprise,
slamming into Suffolk County with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph , and
taking the biggest toll on areas east of Bellport, where it made landfall.
The storm claimed around 60 lives on the Island and turned
areas of the East End on end, scrambling the likes of boats, cars, houses,
It also left an unforgettable impression on the young and impressionable.
“I remember a lot of it because it was so traumatic,” said Bennett.
She was 4 years old on the day the winds blew and waters rose and
delivered a summer resident's yacht — with the man
still attempting to steer it — into the front door of her Westhampton
Beach home, a block from the boat basin, giving entree to water that rose
up to the windowsills.
“I remember the rest of it because my family talked about it forever … at
the dinner table for the rest of my life,” she told the gathering, all from the
Westhampton Beach area. And, the family never stopped looking at pictures, with
her dad saying, “Don’t show the kid that,” when she got to the images of bodies
“floating on their backs with the bellies all swollen from being soaked in the
water. It was pretty gruesome.”
The eight eyewitnesses were brought together Sept.
10 with an eye to formally collecting their stories to supplement those
already documented in two remembrance booklets that marked the 50th and 60th
anniversaries of the storm, said Jon Stanat, president of the Westhampton Beach
Historical Society, which hosted the gathering. Those earlier accounts were
from adults, but last week’s group included several members of what he called
“the younger generation,” those who were as young as 4 and 6 years old at the time
of the storm.
“The big picture,” of course, Stanat said, is that as each anniversary comes
and goes, memories fade and witnesses pass on.
There certainly were some charming and gee whiz moments. Bennett told of a
lone chicken that made it through the storm — featherless. Her father gave it a
pardon, she said. “He didn’t have the heart to kill it, cause, if it could
live through a storm like that, it had a right to live.”
Jackie Parlato Bennett, 84,
was 4 years old when the hurricane hit but she remembers "a lot of it
because it was so traumatic." Photo Credit: Randee Daddona
Lois R. Davis, 96, of Remsenburg, told of, observing from a school
window, cherry tree after cherry tree succumbing to the fierce winds
and toppling over onto teachers’ cars. And later, when taking in the
sights with her sister, they were taken aback by the “shocking” image of an ordinarily
dapper-suited man with his pant-legs rolled up, as he swept water from the
front porch of his home, with the door left open.
And, she said, if people looked at the front door of the building they were
in, “it was this front door. It was this house." After having been
relocated, the house was later donated to the Westhampton Beach Historical
Society and is now home to the Tuthill House Museum, which has a 1938
storm exhibit on display, open on Saturdays through the end of
There were plenty of tales of terror at the gathering, too.
On that day volunteers with cars were dispatched to take some school
children home, recalled Joyce Warner Kelley, now 86 and then likely in
second grade, she said.
The day before the Sept. 10
gathering of survivors, Jackie Parlato Bennett found a scrapbook that
featured a newspaper clipping of children who rode out the storm. Fellow
attendee Otis Bradley, second from left, was one of those children. Photo
Credit: Randee Daddona
However, the approach to the Eastport duck farm she called home was
impassable with fallen trees. “Can you believe they let out a 6-year-old to
walk among those trees and wires?” she asked, with a hint of
disbelief still after all these years. Making it home successfully, she
says her mother told her “my eyes were as big as saucers. I guess I was pretty
Otis Bradley, of Quogue, then 6, found himself right at ground zero at
a home on the bay side of Dune Road. His mother’s friend had invited his sister
and him to join her two children and another child for lunch.
The winds came up, “out of the total blue,” he said, “and it hit.”
“You could see that water coming in — and coming in and coming in,” he said,
with the group first going to the second floor, and then to the attic,
according to an account in the first remembrance booklet.
Lois R. Davis, 96,
recalls trees toppling onto teachers' cars at school. Photo Credit: Randee
As others had joined the group, men “smashed part of the roof, so we could
see the bay and have an exit, in case the house fell,” according to the
account, written by Bradley’s mother's friend.
Things were “so noisy,” said Bradley, 86, who “wasn’t looking a lot,”
as he kept his eyes shut.
As for his feelings at the time? He was pretty scared, he said, with
colorful emphasis. The episode was to provide fodder for nightmares for
years to come.
Still, “every one of us lived,” he said, “which is amazing.”
This house on Dune Road was
washed inland, onto the Westhampton Country Club. Photo Credit: Westhampton Beach
Bradley's survival story was featured in a local newspaper — and
Bennett just happened to have it in a scrapbook she came across the day before
the gathering. The story featured a photo of Bradley when he was 6.
Another participant, Betty Warner, 95, recalled that the day of the
storm parents were picking up their children at what was known as the Six
Corners School in Westhampton Beach. Warner said her mother was not one of
“No one came for me, so I walked home,” she said, finding her mother there
“on her hands and knees, mopping up rain water that had come in under the
She recalls later being out walking with her father and coming across “a
small dog on a mattress, soaking wet.” Its tag indicated it was from a town in
New Jersey, so contact was made with the town clerk, who knew the owner.
With much emotion in her voice, Warner said, “We kept it till they came
and got him.”
Otis Bradley, 86, fled to the
attic of a Dune Road home as the water kept "coming in and coming
in." Photo Credit: Randee Daddona
On a further peculiar note, she told of their spotting in a nearby pasture
a corner cabinet, “the cups still hanging on the hooks. The water just let it
Ruth Duvall, 85, told of her family huddling under the staircase, after her
father, a grocer on Main Street, came home with the store’s cash register and
all the books.
The next thing she recalls is later accompanying him downtown and visiting
the market, where all she can remember is the sight of "cookies and
cigarettes floating” in water.
Marian Phillips, who at the time had been a teacher at the Quogue elementary
school, read aloud a birthday card she received marking her 100th birthday last
October from a former third-grade student, who shared his memories of the
day. That included “watching these huge oak trees blow down like tooth picks. I
was scared as hell,” he wrote.
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Phillips went on to give an account of her father, a plumber, who went to
secure someone’s boat.
As the water rose and “before he got home, the boat was right behind him
like Bo Peep’s little sheep, following him all the way,” she said, “dragging
the dock behind him.”
Jean Wilcox Tuttle, 91, told of being at home when a lull came, and her
father drove off to assess conditions of the family duck farm. “We went out and
ran around, as teenagers would,” she said.
“I remember seeing my father come up from the farm, and drive right through
the new hedge that had been planted.”
His message: “We’ve got to get out of here.” He had seen “a house come over
the bridge” by the farm, “and that house ended up in the duck pens,” she said.
Even those who couldn’t attend the gathering were eager to share stories.
Speaking by phone the day before, Anne S. Kirsch, 6 years old at the time,
said she can’t recall if she was in kindergarten or first grade.
But, “I can still see the water coming up my driveway,” she said, as she
watched through her parents’ bedroom window, not far from a creek that was
connected to the boat basin.
A Dune Road home washed
onto Beach Lane bridge. Photo Credit: Westhampton Beach Historical
Already her father had picked her up from school, where she recalls windows
rattling so badly that she and others jumped up from their seats.
Also etched in her memory — feeling “my father carrying me in, fighting the
wind, going from the garage to the back porch,” said Kirsch, who spoke by phone
from Vermont where some business prevented her from returning home for the
“It was horrendous,” she said — the strong winds, the lack of
warning and all that water that led to her parents losing everything and having
to start over.
Kirsch said the storm taught her that while you can’t live in fear you
also can’t be complacent. “You have to respect the ocean.”
Quogue Bridge was damaged in
the hurricane. Photo Credit: Westhampton Beach Historical Society