Survivors of 1938 Hurricane Tell Stories, Shrug Off Irene

Vivid reflections of last big storm to hit NYC and New England hard.

Aug. 26, 2011— -- To the ancient Greeks, Irene was the word for peace and a goddess who personified it. But for Milton Miller, Hurricane Irene leads to images of war.

Miller, 96, survived the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the storm that many are remembering as Irene, in many ways a similar storm, moves up the Atlantic coast.

"There was a big fish factory east of Amagansett that processed fish into fertilizer. Rivets were snapping around like bumblebees. It was just as dangerous as being in a war with people shooting at you," said Miller, who now lives in East Hampton, N.Y.

Despite its name, the '38 hurricane made landfall on Long Island, N.Y., pounding the area on its way to southern and western New England.

The combat simile is earned. Miller spent three years in the South Pacific with the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. His landing ship sat on a beach on Iwo Jima for more than a month during the famous battle for that island. At Okinawa his ship was hit by a kamikaze.

"I was toward the bow. He hit the stern. The ship was lost," he said.

During the war, Miller survived not just enemy fire but "typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, you name it."

Five years ago, living in Florida, he lost everything he had in Hurricane Katrina.

"I've seen a lot of 'em. You never know 'til the last minute what's gonna happen. Nobody predicted the one in '38 would hit the way it did," he said.

It was the worst one he's seen, he said.

According to Kyle Imhoff, of the Pennsylvania State Climate Office, Irene and the 1938 hurricane have similar tracks. But the '38 storm made landfall on Long Island as a Category 3 hurricane, and Irene is expected to be Category 1 or 2 by the time it hits the New York Metropolitan Area. Irene will likely drop more rain. The hurricanes of 1955, Connie and Diane, were more "climatically similar" to Irene, he said.

Patricia Shuttleworth, 83, echoed Miller's views. She was 10 years old on Sept. 21, 1938. She was staying with a friend's family on the South Shore of Long Island, near her home in Westhampton Beach. The storm worsened, and her friend's mother called the Coast Guard, which said there was "no danger," Shuttleworth recalled, adding, "Nobody thought of hurricanes back then."

But it kept getting worse, she said, "the ocean coming up the dunes."

At 4 p.m., the eye passed over, and water surged over Dune Road.

"Don't let the children see," she remembered someone saying, as water came toward them.

All the children burst into tears.

"It happened so quickly," she said.

They scrambled to the attic of the house.

"Both sides of the house were ripped off by water. The central part, where we were, stood, thank God. An adult cut a hole in the roof for air. There was nothing we could do but pray," she said.

Another adult burned books in the house's library to try to signal for help, but no one came, she added.

The next afternoon, their food gone, she said they saw that 73 homes on the road had washed away, leaving one still standing.

"It was a terrible experience, but one I'll never forget," Shuttleworth said.

For some time afterward, she had nightmares of "the ocean coming right toward me."

Lack of warning is a theme that many survivors' recollections share.

Marilyn Fogel Schlossberg, 88, said there was "absolutely no warning" that a hurricane was about to hit her and her neighbors in Providence, R.I. In fact, when her father saw water in the street, he thought it was a broken water main.

Hurricane Irene Doesn't Faze Survivors of '38

Mary Johnston, 95, who lived in Rhode Island at the time, said, "We weren't prepared. We didn't know 'til people practically blew into the ocean!"

All agreed the media coverage and official warnings were the biggest difference between 1938 and Irene.

Milton Miller said they could tone it down a bit nowadays.

"It's good to prepare, but the way a lot of these weathermen express themselves, you'd think the hurricane was right on your doorstep!" he said, adding, "Well, young reporters want to make a name for themselves."

Despite their traumatic memories of 1938, or perhaps because of them, these survivors did not seem bothered by Irene.

"I don't think this one's going to amount to anything," said Mary Johnston.

"Frankly, I don't think it's going to bother us too much," said Patricia Shuttleworth, noting her location -- Greenport, N.Y. -- is inland.

Miller said: "It don't bother me none. … I just take it with a grain of salt. And at my age, what difference does it make?"

Watch full coverage of Hurricane Irene on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET.