SEPTEMBER 21, 1938, THE DAY THE OCEAN MET THE BAY
The 1938 hurricane originated as an unheralded tropical storm drifting in the far eastern tropical Atlantic. Reports from mariners place the storm 350 miles north of Puerto Rico on September 16th, heading in the general direction of the Bahamas and Florida.
By September 19, it suddenly picked up speed and intensity, attracting the attention of the U.S. Weather Bureau as it headed straight for Miami. A day later, the Weather Bureau received ship reports that the cyclone had veered north and was moving up the coasts of Florida and Georgia - traveling roughly parallel to the U.S. coastline.
The Weather Bureau predicted the the storm would follow the usual northeasterly pattern, missing the coast and blowing itself out over the Atlantic. On September 21, the forecast noted a “tropical disturbance” which was not expected to cause anything more serious than heavy rains.
Marjorie Hopkins, whose family cottage was at Harbor and Neptune, describes in the Hopkins Family History her experiences of that day:
“Sept. 21st dawned, and it was very rainy and soggy as it had been raining for three days straight…. There was a knock on the front door and Mike Pryor called ‘get out of the house at once, don’t stop for anything, the ocean is sweeping the Island, get to the dock.’ … Finally, we all got to Broadway. I think the moment of truth was at that particular moment for me, as I looked around and saw this large house on the corner of Broadway and Ocean Promenade being turned slowly by the force of the waves and the water rushing down Broadway.”
Mrs. Hopkins and about 70 others made their way to the dock where they spent the next several hours huddled aboard the ferryboat ELADIO and another smaller boat, watching as the bay quickly filled with debris, as “trees, furniture, walls and doors of houses were scooped up in the gale and hurled against the small boats.”
Others were not so fortunate. Mme. Bazinet and Mrs. Haas, both of whom owned houses on the oceanfront, were drowned.
After several hours of terror, the hurricane subsided. The refugees made their way to the new Village Hall where they spent the night.
Mrs. Hopkins describes the scene in the morning, “It was a beautiful, clear fall morning; as we looked out from the Village Hall we could hardly believe the devastation that had been wrought.”
The village inventory of losses showed 89 homes lost, with many of the remaining 80, badly damaged. In addition, the boardwalks had been destroyed and the “water works.” As Louise Wiedhopf, in her letter of September 22, 1938 wrote to her husband Jack, “And the water works are gone – so what good is one’s house if standing?”
The rebuilding of Saltaire started immediately. Mayor Paul Schmitt and the Board of Trustees declared a state of emergency. Within forty-eight hours, 150 workers from the Works Progress Administration [W.P.A. ], were digging out the village, salvaging wood to rebuild the boardwalks, clearing the debris and burning it. State troopers stood guard to prevent looting.
By January 1939, Mayor Schmitt could address a letter to “THE PROPERTY OWNERS OF SALTAIRE” summarizing the amount of rehabilitation that had already been accomplished: Repair of the dock, reconstruction of the boardwalks, removal of debris and, most important, an effort by Suffolk County to rebuild the ocean-front dunes by dredging sand from the bay to construct “a larger and better dune than we have ever had in the Village of Saltaire.”
Meanwhile, Long Island State Park Commissioner Robert Moses had his own proposal to save Fire Island: “[A] plan to build a forty-three mile ocean front drive and three new state parks between Fire Island and Southampton” was made public on October 3, 1938.
Opposition was immediate and drew this response by Moses: “There has been a great deal of excited and indignant letter writing by poetic people who are choked with emotion about the threat implicit in our plan to the flora an fauna of Fire Island. Probably not one of these scribblers has taken the pains to walk or fly over the beach since the storm to see how little of it is left and how inevitable is further destruction, unless drastic steps are taken.” The plan foundered when the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors cut $6 million from the proposal.
As summer approached, those who still had a house returned, determined not to give up. Paul Stopenhagen describes the summer of 1939 as “…a very strange period. People spent the time repairing and rebuilding their houses.” Marjory Hopkins described it as “pretty depressing…. There were very few people except W.P.A. workers around and for the first time I felt more comfortable with the doors locked.”
The work continued throughout the summer and on Saturday, August 26, 1939, Mayor Schmitt proclaimed an early Thanksgiving Day for the Village of Saltaire “…in appreciation of the gifts bestowed on it by Divine Providence, the Federal Government in the form of the W.P.A. , the Suffolk County Engineer’s office and the Islip Town Board.” The day was given over to ceremonies and speeches and a luncheon at the Village Hall. The program ended with at a softball game between the staffs of the Saltaire and Bay Shore Post Offices.
“One of the Atlantic coast’s most pleasant and peaceful summer colonies,” as it was described in a eulogy by the Kansas City Star on September 24, 1938, had come back to life.
Copyright © 2008 by Frank Markus
Essay copyright © 1988, 2008 by Elizabeth Starkey
Last Revised: 09/18/2008