A phenomenal set of meteorological coincidences has turned Hurricane Sandy into an epic storm, but there have been a few other tempests that have greatly benefitted from similarly freakish conditions. And as bad as Hurricane Sandy will be, at least the technology is available to detect, monitor and track it. Earlier “storms of the century” were tracked with some educated guesswork — if at all.
Sandy is most often being compared to a powerful hurricane that struck Long Island, New York and New England as a Category 3 storm on September 21, 1938. The U.S. Weather Bureau — the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center — knew a hurricane had formed in mid-September. The storm strengthened as it moved westward across the Atlantic and at one point its winds may have exceeded 155 mph.
But the hurricane veered away from the Caribbean and the Bahamas and moved northward off the Atlantic Coast. Hurricanes typically take a gradual turn to the northeast as they move up the East Coast. This hurricane turned away from Miami, Jacksonville, and other cities on the southeastern coast.
Something unusual happened, however, as the storm passed North Carolina. Two weather systems — low pressure over the eastern U.S., high pressure over the Atlantic Ocean likely to the east of the storm — prevented the hurricane from turning further out to sea and also caused the storm’s forward speed to dramatically increase.
The hurricane’s movement may have increased to as much as 70 mph — an unheard-of speed — as it raced up the East Coast. Although the storm had lost some from its fearsome intensity, its peak winds were still blowing at better than 120 mph.
Hurricanes usually weaken when they reach the cooler waters north of Cape Hatteras and the Gulf Stream. But storms that weaken are moving no faster than around 12 mph. This storm was essentially moving too fast to weaken. In his book Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones, author David Longshore notes that the storm brushed Cape Hatteras just after dawn on September 21, 1938.
Before nightfall that same day, the hurricane slammed into Long Island — almost 400 miles away from Cape Hatteras — with winds that have been estimated as high as 130 mph.
The Weather Bureau badly misunderstood this storm. “As late as 2 p.m. September 21, when the storm had torn up Atlantic City’s boardwalk and was transporting entire houses across Long Island Sound, (the Weather Bureau) reported that the “tropical storm” was rapidly blowing out to sea,” author William Manchester wrote in The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972.
Manchester said a man living on Long Island received a barometer in the mail that he’d ordered a few days earlier. When he opened the package, the instrument’s needle pointed to a reading of “Hurricanes and Tornadoes.” Thinking that the barometer was broken, the annoyed man left his home to go to the post office to mail it back.
“While he was gone, his house blew away,” Manchester wrote. “It happened that quickly.”
The hurricane, which came to be called the Long Island Express because of its uncanny speed, inflicted more devastation on New England. More than 700 people were killed, and the storm blew down enough trees to build 200,000 homes, Manchester wrote.
In March 1962, two storms merged to become a devastating nor’easter that caused havoc from North Carolina to New England.
On March 6, a powerful winter storm formed over Iowa and moved eastward, dumping more than two feet of snow in some places. In Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, authors Larry Savadove and Margaret Buchholz said that the storm brought snow to Alabama, and in Miami the temperature dropped to 31 degrees.
Meanwhile, another storm formed off the coast of Georgia. The Iowa storm merged with the Georgia storm. Then the hybrid storm stalled, “held in place by a cold front that had moved down from Canada,” Savadove and Buchholz said.
The storm, which is now known as the Ash Wednesday Storm, pushed up waves as high as 30 feet in the open water of the Atlantic. The waves were pushed ashore at “freight train” speed, and their height was helped a little by a full moon.
The storm furiously pounded the New Jersey shore. The snow turned to hail in some places, and winds were at near-hurricane force of 73 mph. The USS Monssen, a Navy destroyer, was shoved onto a beach at Holgate, New Jersey. One New Jersey state official quipped that “Monmouth and Ocean counties haven’t been in such peril since the Battle of Monmouth (during the American Revolution).”
Willie Drye has been writing about hurricanes and other topics for National Geographic News since 2003. Follow his blog, Drye Goods.