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January-February 2012

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Top U.S. Weather Events of the Twentieth Century–Part II

In the July/August 2011 issue of Weatherwise, I revisited six of the 20th century's great United States weather disasters. Four of these (the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1938 New England Hurricane), were previously suggested by regular contributors to Weatherwise in a poll of the top weather events of the last 100 years and NOAA. The remaining two events (the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane and Flood and the 1935 Florida Keys Hurricane) were recognized by NOAA alone, although Weatherwise contributors did give the 1935 storm “honorable mention.”

In this article, as with the first, I will revisit in chronological order six more of the 20th century's top United States weather events. To qualify, the event must have taken place primarily within U.S. borders.

Caption: Arkansas City, Arkansas, on April 27, 1927. The river stage was at 52.8 feet.

The 1927 Mississippi River Flood

On May 20–21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh made a history-making, 3,600 mile, nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island, New York, to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France. As is well known, Lindbergh—or “Lucky Lindy,” as he was called—was hailed as a great hero. Undoubtedly, in the absence of another great news story, Lindbergh's flight would have ranked as 1927's greatest news story.

But there was another great news story that year, and it preceded Lindbergh's. It was the Great 1927 Mississippi River Flood, which had peaked in April. The flood, which wouldn't dissipate for months, was still dominating the nation's headlines on May 21, 1927, when Lindy's plane landed in Paris. Dubbed The Spirit of St. Louis, the plane's name proved prophetic for St. Louis, which tried desperately to keep up its spirits, with the Mississippi River remaining at flood stage there for 77 days. And the flood would continue to be dominating the headlines at year's end, when it would be voted the year's number-one news event.

According to victims and writers, the 1927 flood was one of biblical proportions, eventually inundating a territory the size of New England (which had its own flood later in 1927). Technically, it wasn't a “storm;” it was a long-lasting series of prolific rain-producers that flooded the Mississippi Valley over many months, culminating in the epic rains of April 1927. But the technicality mattered little. A flood was a flood.

On April 15, at the peak of the deluge, all-time rainfall records (previously Greenville, Mississippi, 8.12 inches; Cairo, Illinois, 10 inches; New Orleans, Louisiana, 14.96 inches) were shattered from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Texas to Alabama. In places, the Mississippi River was said to be 60 miles wide.

In Greenville, Mississippi, near the flood's epicenter, Henry Waring Ball wrote in his diary:

The worst Good Friday I ever saw. A night of incessant storms, wind, lightning, thunder and torrents of rain … none of us slept much. A day too dark and stormy to go to church or even out of doors. Discomfort. Flowers and plants beaten to the earth, little half-drowned chickens in baskets in the kitchen, house leaking … everybody in a bad humor except … the cook. River appallingly high, and levees in very precarious condition. Too dark to write….

The flood caused enormous damage to the farmland and infrastructure of the nation's heartland. Although eclipsed in some respects by the 1993 Midwest Flood, the human tragedy was probably worse, striking hardest at those most desperate—poor African-American migrant workers.

In her 2006 story for the Mississippi Historical Society, The Flood of 1927 and Its Impact in Greenville, Mississippi, Princella W. Nowell, described the horrible mistreatment of migrant black laborers. During Greenville's darkest hour, she said that hundreds of blacks were recruited to shore up the levees and unload Red Cross food supplies in a 24/7 effort. But the laborers were unpaid and, under some circumstances, were even denied the very food they unloaded.

Other stories were worse. Many blacks, though malnourished and without shelter, were sometimes shot if they refused their assignments. All of this eventually led to a mass revolt, and later, a mass migration of tens of thousands to the north, resulting in what has been called the “Great Migration of African Americans.” As one Greenville resident put it, “[I had to] get my famaly [sic] out of this cursed South land—down here a Negro man is not as good as a white man's dog.”

The migration, which some plantation owners tried to curtail with armed guards, was one of the greatest labor transfers in American history. The main beneficiary of this transfer was the Chicago area, where factory jobs were abundant and wages were higher.

The next year, recognizing the importance of controlling the mighty Mississippi and other waterways, Congress enacted the 1928 Flood Control Act. Also, partly due to his skillful handling of both flood relief operations and refugee camps as Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States. But ironically, as President Hoover's broken promises to the black community about the future of those same refugee camps cost him the black vote—and his re-election.

Caption: The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The river front at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on April 20, 1927. The river stage was at 40 feet.

Hurricane Camille of 1969

Just as in 1927, the year 1969 was also marked by a great technological achievement. On July 20, for the first time, a human being (Neil Armstrong) landed on the moon. Also vividly remembered was the August 15–18 Music and Art Fair in New York state, otherwise known as “Woodstock.” One of the largest rock festivals ever, it became a symbol of the 1960s generation.

While the musicians played on at Woodstock, Mississippi Gulf Coast residents had anything but music on their minds. Monster Hurricane Camille was bearing down and would strike the area late on August 17 near Pass Christian.

The map shows the storm originating near the Cayman Islands on August 14. But its actual origin was on August 5 as a tropical “wave” near the Cape Verde Islands, off Africa—a major “hot spot” for tropical development. The wave developed into a depression and traveled steadily westward, becoming a tropical storm on August 14, when it rapidly strengthened south of Cuba. From that point, the storm traveled northwestward, quickly growing into a Category 3 (maximum winds of 115 mph) hurricane.

Continuing on its northwestward track, the storm intensified even further. Just before landfall, late on August 17 or early on August 18, Camille reached an astonishing Category 5-plus level, with 190 mph sustained winds and 200-plus mph gusts (estimated due to loss of measurement devices).

As discussed by the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang on August 17, 2009, Camille's 40th anniversary, forecasting techniques were less advanced than today's. But they were still relatively good, as hurricane hunter planes and satellite photography had already been in use for some time. Based on these tools, forecasters expected a Florida Panhandle landfall.

Armed with this (questionable) information, some 20–30 residents of the Richelieu Manor Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi decided to “ride out” the storm. Despite official evacuation orders, they would have a hurricane party. But, as the party-goers would soon realize, Camille “was no lady,” and decided to make a last-minute left turn, slamming into the Mississippi coastline about 100 miles west of original projections. This sealed the fate of most of the Richelieu people. It would be almost the same as if a hurricane's eye was expected to strike eastern Long Island, but struck New York City instead.

But were the Richelieu stalwarts really party-goers? It's a story now discredited by survivors, one of whom is Ben Duckworth, who said:

There was no hurricane party. We were exhausted from boarding up windows and helping the police move cars … and too tired to party. I can't tell you why that story persists…. I guess the hurricane party makes a good story. I'm not [back] here to tell a story. Something inside me said that … I need to set the record straight.

Paul Williams, a church sexton who was worried about his home, asked the pastor to allow his 16 family members to ride out the storm in an 1849 building that had survived 18 hurricanes. As described in Camille, the Storm,

The water began to flow into the building about 10 p.m., rising upstairs and causing loose items to tumble down. Williams began moving his family up a 12-foot pull-down attic ladder. One by one each family member was raised to the highest level. As Williams attempted to … join his family, the wind and water took control. The boards framing the building cracked open.

His family was washed away and were never to be seen again. Williams was swept into the adjacent cemetery. During the night, clinging to a branch, he watched the accumulating debris—“the toppling tombstones, and the regurgitating coffins popping out from recently dug graves.”

In the end, Hurricane Camille became one of only three 20th century Atlantic hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland at Category 5 strength (155-plus mph winds). And if the 1935 Florida Keys Hurricane is discounted because, technically, it bypassed the U.S. mainland as a Category 5, then there were only two. The other was Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, discussed below.

Caption: An aerial view of Dade County, Florida, showing damage from one of the most destructive hurricanes in the history of the United States. Hurricane Andrew did extensive damage to homes south of Miami in 1992, leaving little behind in its wake. One million people were evacuated and 54 died in this hurricane.

Courtesy of the Capital Weather Gang, here are some additional facts and figures about Hurricane Camille:

  • Fatalities: 347 U.S. deaths, a relatively low number for a storm of this magnitude (Katrina caused up to 4000, directly and indirectly.)

  • Property damage: Almost $11 billion (2011) (Katrina neared $100 billion, the majority of damage resulting from ruptured New Orleans levees.)

  • Lowest barometric pressure: 909 mb (26.84 inches of mercury) at Mississippi landfall, second lowest landfall pressure to date (if the 1935 FL Keys Hurricane with 26.35 inches is considered)

  • Storm surge: 24.2 feet. Katrina's: 27.8 feet, a U.S. record.

  • Ships were reportedly carried and dropped 7 miles inland from the coast.

Caption: Ships beached by Hurricane Camille in 1969.

Caption: Track of the final eight days of Hurricane Camille, August 14–22, 1969.

Caption: Richelieu Manor Apartments before Camille.

Caption: Richelieu Manor Apartments after Camille.

The New England Blizzard of 1978

In the United States, 1978 will long be remembered as the year of the great blizzards. Yes, blizzards, with an “s.” The first was a furious combination of heavy snow, high winds, and bitter cold on January 26–27, 1978, over parts of the Great Lakes states, including the Detroit, Michigan, area.

But this story's focus is on the Northeast storm that occurred less than two weeks later, on February 6–7, 1978. While not as cold as the Midwest storm, the New England nor'easter delivered a much more powerful punch in two ways: snowfall was greater (40-plus inches on the level, with drifts towering to more than 15 feet), and it will long be remembered for its hurricane-like characteristics—even to the extent of exhibiting an “eye” in satellite photos. It was probably the most severe storm of its type ever known in New England during the modern era. (In his book, Early American Winters, 1604–1820, David Ludlum, weather historian and founder of Weatherwise, classified “The Great Snow” of February−March 1717 as possibly the greatest since our ancestors began chronicling winters in the Northeast.)

To make things worse, the storm arrived during astronomical high tide, caused by a new moon. This resulted in coastal flooding and erosion of record proportions from Long Island, New York, to Maine. At times, northeast winds gusted to more than 100 mph, causing a major storm surge indicative of a strong Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane.

The low-pressure system causing all this commotion was centered off of coastal New England, south of Martha's Vineyard. Sometimes called the “benchmark” position for heavy snowfall in New England, the coordinates of this lonely spot in the Atlantic are 40°N latitude and 70°W longitude.

Not only was the storm centered near the benchmark position, but it stalled there, pounding Long Island, New York, and New England for up to 33 hours, far longer than the usual period of eight to 16 hours for a coastal storm.

At its peak, the storm caused “whiteout” conditions throughout much of southern and eastern New England, with snow falling in “thunder snow” bursts of four to six inches per hour in places. The snow fell so fast and furious that 10-year-old Peter Gosselin, of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, unable to find his front door, died in the deep snow just a short distance away. His body wasn't found until three weeks later.

A sidelight: Prior to this storm, it was uncommon for vehicular traffic to be totally banned because of a weather emergency. However, when a staffer suggested to then Massachusetts Governor Ella Grasso that she do just that, she agreed. This resulted in a huge improvement in the speed of snow clearing operations, compared with previous storms.

Here are some other facts and figures about the New England Blizzard of 1978:

  • Fatalities: Approximately 100

  • Property damage: Almost $700 million throughout the Northeast

  • Snowfall records:

    • Boston, Massachusetts: 27.1 inches, second only to the 27.5 inches recorded during the blizzard of February 18, 2003

    • Providence, Rhode Island: 27.6 inches of snow, an all-time record

Caption: The Great blizzard of 1978. Taken on Maple Street in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. This was about a week after the storm, when people could finally come out of their homes.

The Great El Niño Episodes of 1982–1983 and 1997–1998

As many know, the Spanish term El Niño means the “boy child,” particularly the Christ child. Early Peruvians used the term to refer to the occasional (about every three to seven years) appearance of unusually warm equatorial Pacific waters at their coastline. This was, and is, an event that often peaks around Christmastime before beginning to dissipate (usually). Thus, the early Peruvians named it El Niño.”

Under typical conditions, the prevailing east-to-west trade winds “push” vast quantities of ocean water westward, away from the Peruvian coast. This allows deep, nutrient-rich, colder waters to replace the westward-traveling surface waters—a process called “upwelling.” Historically, Peru's anchovy industry, the mainstay of its economy, thrived under such conditions.

However, when an El Niño (full name is El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO) occurs, the trade winds slacken, and, almost like in a tilted bathtub, the super-warm waters of the western Pacific slide eastward. Ultimately, the warmer waters reach South America and ride up along the coast of North America. For the Peruvian economy, this meant disaster, as the anchovies either died or sought colder waters elsewhere.

Until about 30 years ago, scientists paid little attention to El Niños. They knew that sea life, atmospheric pressure patterns, etc., were affected, but otherwise, El Niños were almost disregarded.

After the unpredicted El Niño of 1982–1983, however, scientists took notice for the first time, realizing that far more than Peruvian anchovies were at stake. It was obvious that the 1982–1983 El Niño had a disastrous effect on the world s weather and overall ecosystem, including that of the United States.

Following is a sampling of some of the worldwide effects of the 1982–1983 El Niño—the good (surprisingly), the bad, and the ugly:

The Good

  • A mild Eastern United States winter (but not good for the ski industry), although the Northeast was hit with an unusually harsh blizzard—coined the “megalopolis storm”—during the second week in February. (The cold was short-lived, as mild conditions returned for the remainder of the winter.)

  • A weak to non-existent 1983 hurricane season. In 2009, Gerry Bell, lead hurricane forecaster for the NWS's Climate Prediction Center, said, “Upper-level winds from the west come across the Caribbean, produce increased wind shear [different direction winds aloft from those at lower altitudes], and that's what hinders hurricane activity.”

The Bad

  • Dust storms, brush fires, and droughts in Australia, Africa, and Indonesia

  • Extreme rainfall in Peru, a normally arid country

  • Mudslides and landslides along the California coast due to the incessant rains

  • Dead coral in the equatorial Pacific caused by high water temperatures (Aside from their sheer beauty, coral reefs protect coastlines from erosion, and coral has been shown to contain rare chemicals useful in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.)

The Ugly

  • Encephalitis outbreaks on the U.S. East Coast caused by an increased mosquito population

  • Bubonic plague in New Mexico due to an increase of rodent-carrying fleas

  • Shark attacks in Oregon waters due to unusually warm sea temperatures

  • Increased snake bites in Montana because, reportedly, the snakes followed mice out of the hills in search of food and water during unusually hot weather

After the 1982–1983 El Niño, a network of 70 buoys was eventually deployed in the equatorial Pacific under the Tropical Oceans and Global Atmosphere Program. The buoys measure and transmit sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and other variables to NOAA to help predict future El Niños, which, in fact, they did for the huge El Niño of 1997–1998. This allowed governments, farmers, fishermen, and others to prepare for the onslaught, as best they could.

For the most part, the 1982–1983 and 1997–1998 El Niños had similar worldwide effects; the earlier one was considered less potent, though the impact was not felt that way everywhere. The Journal of Coastal Research, for example, said that the Central California Coast experienced $14 million in damages during the earlier event, but only half as much in 1997–1998.

In terms of rainfall and drought, Australia and Eastern Africa showed markedly different responses to the two El Niños: Eastern Africa and Australia were extremely dry during the first event, while during the second, they were deluged. On the other hand, in both cases, Peru and Ecuador were deluged and Indonesia suffered from drought.

Undoubtedly, there is still much to be learned about El Niños. And in terms of climate change, the biggest challenge of all may be to determine whether the current increase in El Niño frequency helps cause it, or if climate change itself causes more El Niños.

Caption: Illustration showing El Nino and La Nina's opposite rainfall anomalies.

Hurricane Andrew, 1992

Triumph Over Disaster: The Hurricane Andrew Story, a TV movie from 1993, tells the story of how Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida on August 24, 1992. After the storm roared ashore near her South Florida location, Carla Hulin and her children were huddled in a windowless bathroom. She told the children, “Some of our things are probably broken, but whatever they are, we can fix them.” Upon opening the door, however, she found that the whole house was destroyed.

By hurricane standards, Andrew, a Cape Verde-type storm, was relatively compact. It was one of only three 20th century hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland as a Category 5 (winds above 155 mph). (As mentioned in the Hurricane Camille story, if the Florida Keys Hurricane of 1935 is discounted because, technically, it didn't hit the U.S. mainland as a Category 5, then there were only two.) When its eye wall crashed into Homestead Air Force Base, just south of Miami, Florida, it caused almost total destruction. Fortunately for the highly populated areas of downtown Miami, Miami Beach, and environs just 20 miles or so to the north, the damage was much lighter. Later, when the storm hit Louisiana, New Orleans was largely spared as well.

Hurricane Andrew was somewhat of an anomaly: Whereas much of a hurricane's coastal destruction is usually caused by the storm surge, with Andrew that was not the case, despite the 17 foot surge at landfall. Even Andrew's Florida rainfall (five to seven inches) was not considered excessive by hurricane standards. In Louisiana (Hammond), however, rainfall almost topped 12 inches.

According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), Andrew's winds caused most of Florida's coastal damage. Although difficult to corroborate, land observers recorded sustained winds at 144 mph, with gusts to 172 mph, but hurricane hunter plane readings were even higher. These extreme wind velocities were in the northern eye-wall, or right-hand quadrant of the storm, which is typically the most powerful.

Ted Fujita, originator of the Fujita Tornado Wind Damage Scale, believed that most of the wind destruction caused by Andrew was not from straight-line winds at all, but by embedded “mini-twisters.”

Here are some additional facts and figures about Hurricane Andrew:

  • Fatalities: 65 (direct and indirect)

  • Estimated damages: approximately $407 billion (in 2011 dollars)

  • Minimum pressure at landfall: Estimated at 922 mb (27.23 inches) (Only the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, with 892 mb, and Hurricane Camille of 1969, with 909 mb, had lower landfall pressures.)

Caption: Hurricane Andrew, August 23, 1992, at 8:31 a.m. local time.

The “1993 Superstorm”

The “1993 Superstorm,” also known as the “Storm of the Century,” was one of the most massive and intense cold-season storms ever to strike the Eastern United States. (The 1993 Superstorm “Storm of the Century” is not to be confused with the 1950 pre-Thanksgiving “Storm of the Century,” otherwise known as “The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950,” which killed hundreds, caused millions in damages, and dumped several feet of snow.) At one point, the March 12–14, 1993, cyclone and its trailing cold front stretched from Canada, through Cuba (where winds exceeded 100 mph), and on to Central America. The storm occurred on the 105th anniversary of the “Blizzard of 1888,” which devastated Eastern New York State and Western New England.

Caption: Color-Enhanced Satellite Image of 1993 Superstorm.

Rivaling a hurricane, winds in the central Gulf of Mexico were clocked at 100-plus mph. In addition, more than 15 tornadoes and an 11-foot storm surge hit Florida's west coast, killing 44.

As retold by Popular Mechanics in a 2009 article, Coast Guard Petty Officer Rob Wyman had told the Washington Post, “The sea conditions [off Fort Myers, Florida] were absolutely incredible…. It looked like a big washing machine. There were huge waves and spray and hail.” These conditions ultimately sank the 200-foot freighter Fantastico as well as many smaller vessels. After the storm, the Coast Guard would report that 235 people were rescued in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the cold side of the storm, while in a different way, Popular Mechanics reported that conditions were no less severe: At the NWS's Birmingham, Alabama, office, meteorologists sat stunned and transfixed at their computer displays on March 12: “The models must be nuts. We're looking at 12 to 18 inches of snow … there's just no way. That's like 50 percent higher than any other previous record.” The models were vindicated, however, as Birmingham tallied 13 inches of snow, as temperatures dropped to a record 2°F. Even the Florida panhandle recorded six inches of snow.

Atlanta, Georgia, officially recorded only four inches of windblown snow (about twice its seasonal quota), but in the suburbs there was much more, as temperatures tumbled toward the teens. Even with advance warning, however, Atlantans were caught off guard, refusing to believe that snow and cold were coming when flowers were blooming and lawns were turning green.

To the north and east, conditions deteriorated even more. Throughout the Northeast and Canada, there were record or near-record snowfall amounts, although the biggest cities were “spared” with only about 12 inches. In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, snow drifted as high as 10 feet, and Syracuse, New York, saw three feet on the level. The impact on travelers was tremendous: At one point, every airport from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Atlanta, Georgia, was shut down!

The 1993 “Storm of the Century” was a blockbuster storm in almost every respect, but despite its ferocity, it came as no surprise. For the first time, computer models had zeroed in on the track and intensity of a monster storm as much as five to six days in advance. This feat ultimately gave a significant boost to forecaster confidence in operational numerical weather prediction models. But unfortunately, even now—almost 20 years later—these models do have their shortcomings, as we've all seen during the last two years on the East Coast.

Here are some additional “Superstorm” facts and figures:

  • Fatalities: About 300

  • Estimated damages: Almost $9 billion in 2011 dollars

  • Number of people who experienced effects: About 130 million—about half the country's 1993 population

  • Lowest pressure: 960 mb (28.35 inches), worthy of a Category 1 hurricane

  • Greatest official snowfall: 50 inches on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, with 14-foot drifts

DON LIPMAN is a weather speaker, journalist, and historian. After retiring from a career in the United States intelligence community, he began doing weather presentations on cruise ships and at senior centers. Currently, he is also a freelance writer for The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

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