2005-09-30 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

The front page of The Wave of September 28, 1938, the day after the last massive hurricane hit our shores.The front page of The Wave of September 28, 1938, the day after the last massive hurricane hit our shores. September 21, 1938, more than 67 years ago this week, the last truly major hurricane hit Rockaway and then moved on to destroy large portions of New England. The hurricane had no name. They didn’t personalize hurricanes that long ago.

The story of the hurricane was not even the lead story in The Wave the next day. The lead headline on the front page of the September 22, 1938 Wave was “Democrats Nominate J. H. Ferril.”

Ferril, the Neponsit man who was the Democratic candidate for Assemblyman has probably been lost to history. The hurricane has not.

The lead paragraph in the second story that week, headlined “Hurricane Lashes Peninsula: One Man Electrocuted: Rockaway in Darkness For Six Hours,” said “The tropical hurricane that roared up from the south yesterday spent itself out after a six-hour medley of celestial terror and left in its wake, death, injury and damage of incalculable estimation.

The worst blow in the history of Rockaway culminated in a four-day downpour of rain. Damage done to the peninsula alone is roughly estimated at several hundred thousand dollars.”

Several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage was big 67 years ago. Today, it’s one home in Belle Harbor.

Today, the damage done in 1938 would probably cost several hundred million dollars instead.

In Edgemere, around Beach 35 Street, which at the time held many homes and stores as well as PS 106, the ocean met the bay and water was as much as four feet high in the area. Water whipped from the bay over the newly-opened Beach Channel Drive, flooding homes on the bayfront at the same time that a tidal surge pushed water up from the ocean into local beachfront streets.

In fact, the story says, “There was hardly a home on the entire Beach that did not suffer either major or minor damage. Stores were flooded in spite of sand and sawdust filled barriers hastily put up in front of the entrances. “At the height of the storm, all of the electric lights in Rockaway went out and as night fell, the peninsula was in darkness.”

Major damage was done to the Neponsit Beach Hospital on Beach 150 Street. “A heavy storm surge tore away a large section of the breakwater flooding the basement and first floor [of the hospital].” The Wave reported. “The break threatened the well-being of 130 children inmates.

Several buses and five ambulances rushed to the hospital to transfer the children, if necessary.”

The response to the storm from city, state and federal officials was slow, according to that paper and the edition published on September 29.

The headline in that issue reported, “Broad Channel, Damaged By Hurricane, Gets Red Cross Aid; Fifteen Houses Wrecked.” A companion story, slightly lower on the front page of the September 29 issue, reported, “Estimate Storm Damage At Over $300,000.”

As the latter story made clear, however, was that the $300 thousand figure included on city land, mostly Parks Department property. It did not include any of the damages done to residents of the peninsula.

The lead story reads, “The hurricane which swept over the eastern seaboard last Wednesday inflicted widespread damage and suffering in Broad Channel. Over fifteen houses were wrecked and dozens of porches along the waterfront were torn off, foundations and bulkheads were undermined, chimneys were blown down and roofs were damaged. “Broad Channel was in a precarious position at the height of the storm and was cut off from all roads and communication.”

The October 6, 1938 edition of The Wave reported that service in the Rockaways was finally restored when the last of 1,800 wires was repaired. According to the story, water flooded 25 cables and many conduits carrying service to other parts of the city were flooded and had to be completely replaced. The story says that dozens of repairmen worked in three shifts to repair or replace the equipment at a cost of nearly $900 thousand. A week later, one of the stories on the front page reported that local businessmen and civic activists had asked for a seawall to completely surround Rockaway on both the beach and the bay.

William A. Reinhart, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s Beach Protection and Boardwalk Committee, said, “The possibility of wiping out all of the improvements along the beachfront as well as thousands of homes in the light of the recent hurricane prompts us to demand a seawall be constructed.”

That was 1938.

I researched the 1938 hurricane in our archives because, by all accounts, it was the last Category Four or Five storm to hit Long Island and Rockaway head on.

Had Katrina or Rita headed up the coast rather than across Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, we might well have been the focus of national attention rather than New Orleans or Galveston. While I feel their pain, I am glad that we did not have to experience such a hurricane, although storm experts and our historian, Emil Lucev keep reminding me that we will one day, and probably sooner than later.

Most hurricanes, even the strongest, move at a speed of about fifteen to twenty miles an hour. Given the distance between the Caribbean (where the storms generate) and New York City is about 1,400 miles, that gives us lots of time, at least 70 hours to make our evacuation plans and get to a safer place. We should use those hours wisely. A wide-ranging hurricane can provide winds and rain up to 24 hours before the eye of the storm actually hits the coast. That cuts the time to 50 hours or so.

I have always believed that I could sit out any storm that nature had to offer. After Katrina, I am no longer so sure. When it is time to go, we should go. Pets or no pets, home or no home. Find a safe place in burrow in, if you can. If you can’t, and you have to rely on the government, that is another story. If that is the case, I wish you luck and good fortune.

As the people of New Orleans found out, relying on FEMA and the rest of the federal government will get you nowhere but in trouble.

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You started with a well written informative piece. You then had to take the Schwach shot at the government. What is it that you do not get? New Orleans failed their people due to local leadership. The Mayor and Governor were two democrats that could not agree on anything. They bickered and argued on every single item that could have saved their city. The Mayor requested the government step in and the governor said no, they could handle it. Look at the breeched levies. They could not begin sand bagging the breech because the money for the slings that holds the sandbags under the helicopters was put in the general fund along with a lot of other money the federal government gave New Orleans. Why don't you do a piece on what state gets more money from the government (louisiana) than any other state and why are they broke 16 days after a disaster. I have worked around Louisina since 1980 and have seen the families living paycheck to paycheck. I had hoped the the city was doing better than that.

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