By Chris Verga |

In late September of 1938, the people of Long Island faced a similar test of the human spirit as those in the Gulf states and the Caribbean are facing this very day.

Considered the worst storm ever to strike Long Island during modern times, the Hurricane of 1938 would make legends of ordinary people locked in a struggle to survive.

It was late summer into early fall, and Fire Island residents could be found winterizing their houses after a great summer season. About 400 were planning to stay year-long on the barrier beach, and dozens of others were just extending their fishing season.

Then on Sept. 21, 1938, at 2:20 p.m., a storm started to sweep over the island.

Locals underestimated the coming storm; many hadn’t even known it was coming. As the storm worsened, concerns grew over those still on Fire Island.

The scheduled ferry Eladio that Fire Island residents were depending on canceled service due to the turbulent seas. A freighter named Edward was sent to Fire Island to help. While heading across the bay, Edward succumbed to waves flooding the engines.

By 4 p.m., winds had fully reached Category 3 speeds and waves surged high as 30 feet.

Meanwhile, some Bay Shore residents were growing concerned for loved ones stuck in Fair Harbor, Fire Island, in particular. They called in the Coast Guard to rescue them, but rough waves made it nearly impossible to navigate the bay with the large cruisers.

As word spread of the stranded people, ferryboat Captain Gustave Pagel started to assemble for a dangerous voyage before the peak of the storm.

Reaching Fair Harbor, Pagel faced very little obstacles outside of lack of visibility. Once docked in Fair Harbor, the captain quickly packed out his boat with 39 people who were on the island and headed back to Bay Shore. But the waves made the route impassable. An hour ferry ride instead became an all-night journey of uncertainty for the crew and passengers. For over 10 hours, the boat was battered with a previously unimaginable storm surge.

Pieces of houses, docks and broken-up boats slammed against the hull. Blinding rain made it hard to determine what direction the boat was heading. In response, Pagel anchored the boat in an effort to ride out the storm and not be swept further off course.

While anchored, branches from trees on Fire Island were blown toward the boat as projectiles broke its windows and dented the hull.  The waves battered Pagel’s boat. At the same time, the powerful storm was ripping through Fire Island and causing unprecedented devastation.

The dunes in Fair Harbor were breached and a majority of homes were washed out to sea or badly damaged. The Village of Saltaire, whose residents decided to level their dunes to allow for better water views, had 90 of their homes wiped out; four residents were killed.

As the fury of the storm passed, Pagel was able to dock — 15 hours later, at 9:30 a.m.

The legendary storm cut 10 new inlets along the South Shore and killed more than 50 people here, and over 600 between Long Island and New England. Twenty-nine people were killed in West Hampton Beach alone.

Not included among those numbers were the souls that Captain Pagel saved.

He was a hero.

Today, this same area of middle to eastern Long Island is home to more than 700,000 people, which means that many more lives would be jeopardized during a weather event similar to the Hurricane of 1938, considered the fastest-moving hurricane (at 70 mph) ever recorded on earth.

Despite its dense population, there are still just a few roadways leading out of the East End and off of Long Island. And only a handful of bridges.

It’s not doubt that, given such a storm, heroes such as Captain Pagel would emerge to help navigate people to safer grounds.

Above: Buildings on Fire Island after the Hurricane of 1938.

Credit: Bay Shore Historical Society

Information Sources:
•¨Brooklyn Daily Eagle  September 22-October 7, 1938
• Fire Island 1650-1983, Madeline Johnson, Shore land Press, 1992
• Suffolk County News, October 1, 1938
• New York Herald Tribune September 27, 1938