Historic Hurricanes from New Jersey to New England: 1634-2011
A very large though not intense hurricane is bearing down on the mid-Atlantic coastline as I write this Saturday morning August 27, 2011. This blog is a review of significant hurricanes that have in the past affected the New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, and Northeastern portions of the United States. I arrange this review in a chronological order beginning with the first European settlement of the northeastern United States in 1620.
August 1635: The Great Colonial Hurricane
David Ludlum, America’s greatest weather historian, notes that Rev. Increase Mather reported in his treatise ‘Remarkable Providences’ (1684) that he had heard “of no other storm more dismal than the great hurricane which was in August 1635”. Ludlum writes “this was the greatest meteorological event of the colonial period in New England, coming only 15 years after the settlement of Plymouth Plantation in the Massachusetts Bay Colony”. John Winthrop and William Bedford witnessed the storm. It struck on August 16, 1635 and leveled the forests of the region. The native population agreed no such storm in their lore had been so powerful.
September 1675: A hurricane said to be almost as powerful as the 1635 strikes New London, Connecticut and Boston. Ludlum notes that this storm was equal to the hurricanes to strike Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1635, 1815, 1938, and 1944.
No significant hurricanes in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic are on record aside from the tropical storm that struck Philadelphia on October 22, 1743; Benjamin Franklin measured it accurately using scientific weather measurements for the first time in United States history. The storm was not that significant otherwise. The most significant hurricane of in the 18th century would be the hurricane of September 1775. It “exacted a toll on human lives higher than any pervious American mainland hurricane” according to weather historian David M. Ludlum. 163 lives were lost on the North Carolina Capes and at sea off New England. The path of the storm followed one similar to Hurricane Hazel in 1954; inland over eastern Pennsylvania. Philadelphia harbor reported its highest tide on record.
Chronological list of known 17-18th Century New Jersey to New England Tropical Storms
August 3, 1638
October 5, 1638
September 7, 1675
August 23, 1683
October 29, 1693
October 18, 1703
October 14, 1706
October 25, 1716
September 27, 1727
October 22, 1743
October 8, 1749
October 24, 1761
September 8, 1769
September 3, 1775
August 19, 1788
August 21-24, 1806: The hurricane of August 1806 was very similar to Irene. It made a short transit over Cape Hatteras and then slowly marched northeastward affecting only coastal regions (not even noticed 100 miles inland). New York City was “soundly lashed” and at least 21 sailors were lost off the New Jersey coast. Much damaged occurred on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod.
September 23, 1815: ‘The Great Gale’ This hurricane ranked foremost in the minds of the population in New York and New England at the time. The storm passed east of New York City but hit Long Island soundly. The storm was similar to the 1938 hurricane in that it had a forward motion of 50mph as it plowed on to Long Island. The eye moved over eastern Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. Like the great hurricane of 1938, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Isalnd was most affected. The area was sparsely populated at this time unlike 1938 and only two deaths were reported.
The Great Gale of 1815 inundates Providence, Rhode Island as depicted in this painting by John Russell Bartlett. Rhode Island Historical Society.
September 3, 1821: Last Time a Hurricane Passed Directly over New York City On September 3, 1821 the eye of a hurricane passed directly over New York City. The center crossed Long Island (where JKF Airport is now). Records indicate that this is the only MAJOR hurricane to have passed directly over the city in at least 250 years. The New York Post published this report on September 4th:
An article from the New York Post newspaper recounts the hurricane that lashed the city in 1821.
October 3, 1841: An intense hurricane brushed Cape Cod. 57 fishermen from the town of Truro died in seven vessels that foundered.
1869: Two major hurricanes including ‘Saxby’s Gale’ A tremendous hurricane pounded New England on September 8th, 1869. The eye cut across the eastern tip of Long Island and, as so often occurs, Providence, Rhode Island was swamped. Boston also reported extensive damage. On October 5, 1869 the more infamous hurricane known as ‘Saxby’s Gale’ took a more easterly track striking Nova Scotia, Canada full on. This hurricane did little damage in the United States. It is famous because a British Navy Lieutenant, S.M. Saxby, had predicted the storm almost one year earlier in November 1868 based upon his “prophesy” of an unprecedented lunar high tide occurring due to the moon’s close ‘passage to the equator by October 1869’. The storm did happen. In New England the result was extraordinary rainfall: 4.27” in two hours at Goffstown, New Hampshire and 12.25” storm total at Canton near Hartford, Connecticut, a similar total to those of Hurricane Connie in 1955.
Chronological list of known 19th Century New Jersey to New England Tropical Storms
October 9, 1804 (the famous snow hurricane)
August 23, 1806
September 23, 1815
September 3, 1821
June 4, 1825
October 3, 1841
October 13, 1846
October 7, 1849
July 19, 1850
August 22, 1850
September 11, 1854
August 19, 1856
September 15, 1858
September 8, 1869
October 5, 1869 (‘Saxby’s Gale’)
October 24, 1878
August 24, 1893
October 1, 1896
Great Hurricanes of the 20th Century New Jersey to New England
We reach more familiar territory here where good records and many accounts exist of the worst hurricanes in recent times for the region of New Jersey northward. I list only the most infamous for the sake of brevity.
September 16, 1903: Hurricane makes a direct hit on New Jersey.
September 15, 1904: Hurricane brings 100mph recorded wind gust to the Delmarva Peninsula
September 30, 1920: An exceptionally long period with no significant tropical storm activity ended on October 1, 1920 when a small but intense hurricane passed over Delaware and New Jersey and into central New York State.
October 23, 1923: Hurricane moves on shore over Chesapeake Bay and into Pennsylvania. Atlantic City, New Jersey reports 82mph wind gust.
September 21, 1938: After an almost unprecedented hiatus of 15 years, a powerful hurricane, perhaps the strongest since colonization (only the ‘Great Gale of 1815’ may have been an equal), struck Long Island and southeastern New England killing almost 700 people, mostly in Rhode Island. A peak wind gust of 186mph was recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory south Boston although the storm was a category 3 when it landed and most wind speeds were below 100mph. However, a huge storm surge and the lack of preparedness (due in part because of the length of time since a hurricane last hit the region) resulted in the tremendous loss of life, 7th greatest in U.S. history.
U.S. Weather Bureau map for the morning of September 21, 1938 shows the approaching storm.
September 14, 1944: Another category 3 hurricane slams New England. 390 died including maritime casualties. This was one of the most violent hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic with barometric pressure falling below 27.00” in the Bahamas before hitting Cape Hatteras (which recorded a pressure of 27.85”). The eye came ashore over eastern Long Island and then passed directly over Boston.
August 31, 1954: Hurricane Carol: 120mph winds lashed eastern Long Island, New York where the storm made landfall. 60 deaths were reported in New England. Barometric pressure fell to 28.35” near Montauk, Long Island at landfall. Providence was inundated by the storm surge. Carol was very similar to the 1938 and 1815 tropical storm events in New England.
Downtown Providence is inundated by a storm surge yet again, this time by Hurricane Carol in August 1954. Photo from the Providence Journal archives.
October 15, 1954: Hurricane Hazel: The highest wind speed ever measured in Manhattan, 113mph at the Battery, occurred during the passage of Hurricane Hazel. The storm killed 176 in New England and Canada. The center of the storm made landfall in Virginia and tracked west of New York City and into Ontario where even in Toronto it was still a category 1 hurricane. Irrelevant note: This was the hurricane I was born in at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital.
August 1955: Hurricanes Connie and Diane: These back-to-back hurricanes brought the heaviest rainfall and worst flooding in history to portions of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Up to 28” of rain fell in Torrington, Connecticut over the course of one week as a result of the storms. 200-225 died in the flooding caused by the tropical storms during August in southern New England. Neither storm, however, was a true hurricane by the time they reached New Jersey and New England.
Rainfall and storm track of Hurricane Diane in 1955.
September 12, 1960: Hurricane Donna: Donna, having devastated Florida moved up the east coast and made landfall over Long Island again. Sustained winds of 105mph were recorded on Long Island and Rhode Island. New York City’s harbor reported a 3.5-foot storm surge, which wrecked several piers.
Donna followed the path of a Cape Verde type hurricane.
September 27, 1985: Hurricane Gloria: Gloria made landfall at Long Beach, Long Island, New York as a category 1 hurricane. Wind gusts to 130mph were recorded near Montauk. Only 8 deaths were attributed to the storm thanks to early warning.
August 19, 1991: Hurricane Bob: The last strong hurricane to strike the Northeast was Bob which made landfall in Rhode Island as a category 2 hurricane. 18 deaths were attributed to the storm
A well-defined eye can be seen on this enhanced satellite image of Hurricane Bob as it approaches the Northeast in August 1991.
September 15, 1999: Hurricane Floyd: Like Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972, Floyd was not a hurricane by the time it reached New Jersey and New England but caused extensive damage and many casualties as a result of its flooding rains.
As can be seen by the timelines above, the New Jersey to New England region is long overdue for a hit by a strong hurricane. It is very rare that more than 15 years pass without such an occurrence, and, on average, the period of return should be on the order of 5-10 years.
Early American Hurricanes: 1492-1870 David M. Ludlum, American Meteorological Society, 1963
Hurricanes Ivan Ray Tannehill, Princeton University Press, 1950