Great Hurricane of 1938 Remembered 75 Years Later

Saturday, September 21 marks 75 years since the day the Great Hurricane of 1938 made landfall on Long Island, permanently changing the landscape of the East End. In its path it’s estimated to have killed 800, including 50 on the East End.

There are few residents left who were old enough then to remember the hurricane and the devastation it wreaked, though in Bridgehampton, 101-year-old weather observer Richard Hendrickson still vividly recalls the storm and aftermath.

“It was turmoil,” he said during an interview this week at his Lumber Lane home. “It was disaster and it was right at home.”

Hendrickson has been a volunteer cooperative observer for the National Weather Service since 1930, when it was called the United States Weather Bureau, and to this day he still takes temperature and weather readings twice daily.

Richard Hendrickson at his weather station. Photo credit: Brendan J. O'Reilly

Richard Hendrickson at his weather station. Photo credit: Brendan J. O’Reilly

In 1938, he ran the family farm, Hill View Farm, with his father. Hendrickson, his brother and his sister had all been born in the big white farmhouse there, and while his sister went off to become a nurse and his brother became a lawyer, he stuck around the farm. They had about 25 Guernsey dairy cows and between 4,000 and 5,000 white Leghorn laying hens. The farm also had an orchard of apple and pear trees, some that dated back to the Civil War era, and fields of corn, hay, alfalfa, oats and other crops.

Back then, storm forecasting wasn’t what it is today, he said. East Enders expected a couple coastal storms each year. “Sometimes they’re severe, sometimes they’re not …” he said. “No one knew it was gonna be what it was.”

The 1938 hurricane hit Long Island as a Category 3, according to the National Weather Service, with winds of well more than 100 miles per hour and powerful storm surge.

After the hurricane passed through, many of Hill View Farm’s hen shelters and laying houses were smashed or knocked down, the roof was torn off the farmhouse, the fruit was blown off the trees and trees were knocked down.

Richard Hendrickson in his office at his Bridgehampton home.

Richard Hendrickson in his office at his Bridgehampton home. Photo credit: Brendan J. O’Reilly

His late wife, Dorothea, was a welfare investigator for the town, he said, so she set out with the East Hampton Town nurse, Miss Nesbitt. “They went out to see who was in disaster and needed immediate help.”

He had to stay on the farm and get back to work, himself—or the hens would stop laying. He explained that if the chickens did not have artificial light to extend the length of the day, they would not lay eggs as frequently, and the farm would lose its income.

Many people just needed food. “It was destitute,” he said. “Nothing like that in living memory had happened before.”

Homes and businesses were missing roofs, if they weren’t blown away altogether. “Along the ocean, the homes were all wrecked,” he said. Boats were smashed and the shoreline was changed—the 1938 Hurricane dug out the Shinnecock Inlet, which has become a permanent fixture on Dune Road. The last of the large elm and oak trees in town were reduced to firewood. Farm fields were impregnated with saltwater and it would take several more rainstorms to dilute the salt or wash it away.

“Unless you are agriculturally minded, it’s hard to realize what really took place,” Hendrickson said. The hurricane put many people into debt, and several farmers were put out of business, he said.

Hendrickson said that after 83 years as a weather observer, he can confidently say Earth is in a warming trend. “In the future, because of global warming, we will have coastal storms much more severe than ’38.”

See more photos of the Great Hurricane of 1938 here.

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