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.
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, and poultry.
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 entre 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.”