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Retrospect: October 30, 1991: The Perfect Storm

Caption: NOAA/NWS Daily Weather Map for 7:00 a.m. EST, October 30, 1991. The low pressure system that came to be known as The Perfect Storm is centered about 400 miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The tight pressure gradient created by the storm and high pressure over the Appalachians produced strong winds and high waves along the Eastern Seaboard, sinking the fishing vessel Andrea Gail.

At the end of October and into early November of 1991, a powerful low pressure system moved off the New England coast and over the Atlantic Ocean. Once offshore, the intrusion of cold, dry air from a high pressure system to the north—over southeast Canada—caused the low to intensify further. “These circumstances alone could have created a strong storm,” said Bob Case, who at the time served as the deputy meteorologist-in-charge of the NWS Boston Forecast Office. “But then, like throwing gasoline on a fire, a dying Hurricane Grace delivered immeasurable tropical energy to create the perfect storm.”

Although NWS labeled the storm The Halloween Nor'easter of 1991 in its official report, Case's more vivid expression caught the attention of freelance journalist Sebastian Junger, who was writing a book about the storm and how it devoured the swordfishing vessel Andrea Gail, killing its crew of six men. Junger derived the title of his book—which spent more than two years on The New York Times Best Sellers list and was later made into a major motion picture—from a conversation he had with Case. Case recalled that conversation during a panel discussion on the storm that took place on June 29, 2000, at NOAA headquarters:

Sebastian tells me that he called back in the spring of '93 and I answered the phone. And he told me that he was a journalist and he was interested in writing a book about the Halloween Storm of '91. Well, I knew speaking with him that I was dealing with someone who knew very little, if nothing, about meteorology. So how do you convey that? Well, in my speaking and talking with him, I'm describing the various aspects—how they had to mesh in time and space for this to occur—I said it was almost like a perfect situation, a perfect storm in that respect. And he told me, he said as soon as I used the word “perfect,” he said he remembers jotting it down: “The Perfect Storm, that's the name of my book.”

The Perfect Storm created hurricane-force winds off the New England coast and resulted in damage that rivaled that of the famous Blizzard of 1978. These strong winds were the result of a tight pressure gradient that existed over the waters of the northwest Atlantic—the product of a combination of the low pressure system over the Atlantic and an area of high pressure centered over the Appalachian Mountains.

The storm reached peak intensity at 7:00 a.m. EST on October 30 with a minimum central pressure of 972 millibars and maximum sustained winds of 60 knots (69 mph). At this time, it was centered nearly 400 miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, though its effects were being felt across New England and the East Coast in the form of strong winds and high waves, and as far away as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, where large swells and surf contributed to coastal flooding. Coastal sections of New York and New Jersey saw tide heights and damage that had not been seen since the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.

By far, Massachusetts suffered the worst damage, with total losses at the time reported in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The hardest-hit part of the state was from north of Cape Ann to Nantucket. The Cape Cod town of Chatham reported a peak wind gust of 78 mph. New Jersey, New York, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Florida also each suffered millions of dollars in damage. In North Carolina, 10- to 15-foot waves slapped the shoreline for five days on end. Accompanied by occasional winds of 35-45 mph, they managed to damaged 525 homes and 28 businesses. In Rye Harbor, New Hampshire, some 10,000 lobster traps were either lost or destroyed.

Although the storm had already begun dissipating by the time it crossed over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream on November 1, it began to develop subtropical characteristics. At the center of the system, a distinct circulation and eye began to form. After investigation by an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft, the National Hurricane Center classified the system as a Category 1 hurricane, but chose not to name it, believing that doing so would cause confusion among the media, emergency management community, and the public.

Thirteen people lost their lives to the storm, including the six crew members of the Andrea Gail. While Junger's book and the movie based on it helped solidify the term “perfect storm” in common vernacular—to apply to everything from meteorological phenomena to the recent financial crisis—references to it date as far back as 1718, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term even appears in William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th-centruy novel Vanity Fair.

As for Junger's use of the term, he describes in his book why “the perfect storm” is perhaps the perfect name for this trifecta of meteorological phenomena: “Meteorologists see perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them.”

Note: Portions of this text are taken from the feature article “Name that Storm,” which appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Weatherwise.

Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.

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