The Past Is a Reason to Worry About High-Impact East Coast Hurricanes
I am making no secret about my East Coast hurricane worry this year. The more I look at the setup, the more concerned I am that, in spite of lower accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) overall, the East Coast is vulnerable to a major hit.
The history of Rhode Island hurricanes is one that any weather-loving native Rhode Islander knows much about. Not everyone from Rhode Island loves the weather, and the generation that experienced 1938, 1944, 1954 and 1960 — just like the generation that went through the 1940s in Florida — is fading away. But after repeated hurricane hits between 1938 and 1960, Rhode Island and Massachusetts built dams for protection. South-facing coastal cities were hit by repeated storm surges that resulted in devastation. Of course, if you’re unaware of this, or chose to ignore it, you have a different perspective and you are vulnerable to claims that it’s worse now than ever before.
There are no words to describe the weather in the 1930s in this country. The nation’s midsection had sustained heat and drought summer after summer, which has never been matched again decadally The attacks from the tropics and the legendary cold that visited at times set up extreme swings that, if not for my study of the past, I would not have believed could even happen. As far as the 1938 hurricane is concerned, you have to read about it to believe it.
Obviously, things were worse then. But it wasn’t only 1938. As mentioned above, there was so much fear (and rightfully so) that man was forced to adapt. But you never can beat nature. You may stop her in one place, but she will show up in another. I am not going to deal here with the agenda-driven use of events we see today. Instead, I will simply remind the reader of this: If what happened before happens again, there will be trouble. Moreover, if it happened before, why can’t it be even a bit worse due to natural variation?
Providence, Rhode Island, is now “protected” from the surge by a dam. I wrote in 2004 on how the ports of Wilmington and Philadephia could suffer if an Isabel (2003) struck just 150 miles further up the coast.
It almost happened with Sandy, so why couldn’t it — or shouldn’t it — happen?
This picture of the Edgewood Yacht Club is one of my favorite pictures, since it was located about two miles from where I was born. The building is no longer there.
Keep in mind, 11 days after Carol another major hurricane, Edna, struck New England, but around 100 miles further to the east. Again, these events — two major hurricanes in 11 days in New England — would boggle the mind today if we did not have the history to prove them!
The looting in Providence in 1938 was so bad that the national guard had orders to “shoot to kill” as people in boats in that Great Depression era tried to loot stores. There was an eerie sound of submerged car horns wailing well into the night. A peak wind gust of 186 m.p.h. and a five-minute wind speed of 121 m.p.h. occurred at Blue Hill, Massachusetts, which I believe is the highest wind ever recorded in that period of time and at that low of an elevation that far north. It’s simply incomprehensible if you didn’t know. Two billion cubic board feet of wood was destroyed. Lumber mills in New England were still using 1938 blowdown wood after World War II!
Though not a Rhode Island hit, what do you think would happen if another 1821 hurricane — a Category 3 bulldozer that rode from Tidewater to Long Island and took out buildings and boardwalk on its way — showed up again? Every tree east of what is now the Garden State Parkway was blown down.
Our hurricane forecast in May outlined our concern that, even though we expected below-average ACE overall, storms will be more intense relative to average further north.
I am even more concerned now. Hurricane Chris got strong right in the middle of our target area. Hurricane Beryl fell apart in the main development area further south but may come back further north. There are a whole slew of “bad things” I am seeing, including the configuration of sea surface temperatures and pressure patterns that are projected to be higher than normal in Canada and the North Atlantic. The above-normal pressures in the areas most devastated last year (the deeper tropics) are a sign that features should be weaker there. But the overall pattern leaves the U.S. coastline open, particularly, in my opinion, the coast of New England. It is what it is.
Given the past, we know how bad it can get, We have taken steps to protect a city like Providence. But that area is much different now than in the 1950s. I have toured all the Narragansett Bay towns and seen their high water marks, which are much lower than in Providence. That’s because the water being forced north up the bay into an area that is decreasing further north has to go up. But here’s what’s going to happen now: In the bay towns south of the dam, if the water can’t go into Providence, it has to back up, which would imply more severe flooding further south in areas with far greater population and property than when these great storms of the past have occurred. So even with adaptation, there are problems.
While our coasts have been hit in recent times, the onslaught that occurred in the ‘30s, '40s and 5'0s would be far worse today in terms of property costs. In Florida, a decade like the 1940s could cause $1 trillion in damage. Looking at 1815, 1821, 1938 and 1954, I wonder what kind of damage would occur now. Obviously, the globe is a bit warmer now than then, and I have an idea that the warm oceans are changing mean sea level pressure patterns that in many cases have led to storms weakening off their peaks rather than remaining beasts like we have seen before, when they didn’t bat an eyelash in intensity before coming ashore.
The problem this year is that I am seeing a lot more high pressure forecasted further north like last year. And unlike the major hurricane drought years, I don’t like the fact that it’s going to turn cooler than average across much of the U.S., similar to how it did last year in late July and August. The water is warm next to the East Coast, which encourages convergence. And while I am quite confident that areas in the tropics south of 25°N north that were devastated last year will not see near the same season, I believe storms that may be weaker further south will reach their stride further north.
You can argue climate change all you want, but the simple fact is that a return to seasons when things like “climate change” weren’t even a concern would be devastating. In the case of Providence and many other places, it’s a pick-your-poison option. In the end, the only thing we can do is adapt the best we can to what nature has always done.
Put it this way: Given what I am seeing now, I would be more surprised if we did not deal with a major threat. While not confined to the East Coast, the further north you are, the greater chance you have of a major hit relative to average.
Joe Bastardi, a pioneer in extreme weather and long-range forecasting, is a contributor to The Patriot Post on environmental issues. He is the author of “The Climate Chronicles: Inconvenient Revelations You Won’t Hear From Al Gore — and Others.”