|Mid-Atlantic Hurricanes: A Closer Examination
Pennsylvania and New York. Winds east of the storm gusted to hurricane force over a
large area. Sections west of the track dealt with gales and flash flooding.
What would a Hazel mean today to the Mid-Atlantic region?
The following is a list of concerns:
If a Hazel strikes, expect widespread property losses with a total tab ranking within the top
ten costliest U.S. hurricanes.
Few residents of the Mid-Atlantic region have an awareness of hurricane history. Few
realize that a major--Category 3 or stronger--hurricane racing north from the sub-tropics
can retain hurricane force gusts along a path extending hundreds of miles inland. They
have scant conception of what stormsbringing hours of hurricane force winds have done.
A Hazel type event would stun millions of people with its raw display of power and
Widespread evacuation of coastal sections may create traffic gridlock. This happened in
the southeastern United States as Hurricane Floyd approached in 1999. Many shore
localities have evacuation traffic strategies in place. However, plans will not be tested until
a major hurricane nears. With a Hazel, storm refugees may actually head toward the
Can dwellings handle 100 mph gusts? There has been a huge anount of housing
development since 1954. A Hazel will claim windows, turning the inside of residences into
a maelstrom of flying objects. Winds will claim countless trees and create havoc with
power lines. Individuals sheltering on top floors of high-rise buildings may face winds
considerably higher than those at street level. People sheltering in tree-lined
neighborhoods may have trees crash into their homes.
The wind vulnerability of trees, infrastructure and buildings means an astonishing amount
of mayhem. The area's vegetation and building practices put it at greater risk than more
southerly locations like Florida.The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale understates the risk
from high winds in the Mid-Atlantic region for these reasons and because it doesn't take
into account the cumulative effect of hours of high winds.
After a Hazel, how quickly will vital utilities be restored? After Hurricane Isabel in 2003
and the widespread loss of electricity, and after the derecho of 2012, the public fumed at
a seemingly slow response and related issues. Utilities apologized, called in consultants,
and vowed to do better next time. Will they?
Will repair materials be readily available? Time is of the essence after passage of a
Hazel. Rain and snow in the following months can create considerable havoc.
Will reputable contractors be readily available? After a hurricane disaster there is a huge
need for contractors to provide clean-up and repair work. There is almost always a
shortage, which creates an opportunity for the unscrupulous. Desperation is a swindler's
greatest ally. Message to public officials: It is not enough to warn residents about
disreputable contractors. How about ensuing timely assistance? What is being done to
ensure enough qualified contractors?
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 ranks among the "Big One" hurricanes for the upper Mid-
Atlantic coast. History suggests that an event of this destructive magnitude is unlikely for
much of the hardest hit areas for many years. However, interior sections have yet to see a
Big One wind event. Eight have tracked through Maryland and VIrginia during the past
400 years, with some continuing through eastern Pennsylvania and others tracking into
Delaware and New Jersey.
Mid-Atlantic, expect the storm to be a Category 3 or 4 at landfall in North Carolina, travel
faster than 30 mph after landfall, and occur in September or October. Will those living in
the path of high winds, perhaps hundreds of miles along an inland track, realize ahead of
time that this will be different than other tropical systems?
The longest interval between Hurricane Hazels has been 58 years until now. 2013 marks
59 years since the last. There have been two intervals of 57 years and one of 58 years.
Enough about interior sections of the Middle Atlantic states. Coastal sections,
particularly vulnerable after Hurricane Sandy, may face challenges before the
year is through. The following is a reprint of a column from several hurricane
peak of hurricane season rapidly approaching, hurricane history suggests that coastal areas
may see a major storm like one of these.
The 1821 Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane, or "Great September Gust" as it was known in
the lower Chesapeake region, tracked along the shore from Norfolk through New York City on
Sept. 3. One of the rare hurricanes to retain strong winds even as the center or eye passes
over land, it ravaged southeastern Virginia and coastal Delmarva and New Jersey with likely 80
to 100 mph gusts. The storm moved rapidly, its eyewall remaining intact.
The 1821 hurricane peaked with an enormous series of breakers that resembled tidal waves.
These were reported at Chincoteague, Virginia, and elsewhere. Near Cape May. New Jersey,
along the Delaware Bay, it was reported, "...persons who witnessed the overflow said it came like
a perpendicular wall some five feet high driven by the wind when it changed to the northwest..."
The finale added to an already destructive storm surge.
A similar series of destructive waves, riding astride an already damaging storm surge, also
occurred with the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.
Unlike the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane, the eye of the hurricane of September 1944
remained about 25 to 50 miles off the Mid-Atlantic shore. It was a borderline Category 4
hurricane along the North Carolina Outer Banks, southeastern Virginia and the lower Delmarva
Peninsula. (Cape Henry, Virginia, clocked a Mid-Atlantic record sustained wind of 134 mph!)
It weakened to a Category 3 and then a Category 2 until just before landfall on Long Island
during Sept.14. A rapid hurricane--about 40 mph forward speed while off the Mid-Atlantic coast--
seas remained at a Category 3 state even as the storm weakened. A devastating series of storm
waves swept the New Jersey coastline from Cape May to the vicinity of Sandy Hook, nearly the
entire New Jersey shore.
At Atlantic City, an eyewitness said, "(The waves) picked the entire Boardwalk off its concrete
supports as far as I could see in either direction, tossed it over backwards, and crushed it like
you'd crush toothpicks."
The great coastal hurricane of September 1889 did not cause oceanfront damage through a
few mighty waves. Instead, the Category 2 hurricane stalled off the Mid-Atlantic coast and
gradually dissipated over several days. Persistently strong on-shore winds piled up increasingly
invasive tides. (This scenario played out with even greater destructive effect during the Ash
Wednesday nor'easter of March 1962.) Nearly anchored hurricanes (or nor'easters) create
destructive power through persistence. They can do more damage than stronger, rapidly
Remarkably, the Mid-Atlantic coast has experienced only one destructive region-wide coastal
hurricane in the active hurricane cycle that began in 1995. The past two active cycles (1876-
1904 and 1933-1961) each featured at least six major region-wide coastal hurricanes.
Coastal property owners be warned!
Rick Schwartz, author of Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States
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|What If 2013 Becomes "The Year of the Hurricane"?