September 11th, 2017

Irma: the 7th worst US hurricane

I have no doubt that a lot of people are sad that Irma ranks only 7th on this chart of destructive hurricanes to hit the US, behind the 1935 Labor Day storm, 1969’s Camille, 2005’s Katrina, 1992’s Andrew, and a few older ones. There are some people who are invested in having the most recent storms be the worst ever.

That said, modern forecasting, warnings, and building codes mean that modern hurricanes tend to kill fewer people than older ones. How is “worst” measured? The chart I just linked to measures it in terms of wind speed and pressure at landfall. I suppose that’s as good as any other way to measure a storm’s destructive power, but fatalities would be another.

I was surprised, though, to see that the 1938 storm that hit New England was absent. That storm may not have had sustained winds as strong (although the Blue Hill Observatory south of Boston recorded the highest wind gust it has ever measured, 186 mph). But—due in part to poor forecasting—it caused greater loss of life than many of the other storms listed highest on that list.

The 1935 Labor Day storm is said to have killed 423 people. Camille’s toll was 259, Andrew’s 65. Katrina, however, was in another class with between about 1200 and 1800 deaths attributed to the storm, mostly because of New Orleans’ geography and levee failures causing widespread flooding.

But the New England storm of 1938—whether it made that list or not—was no slouch in the fatalities department and is said to have killed about 700 people:

Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau, was sure that the hurricane was heading for the Northeast, but the chief forecaster overruled him. It had been well over a century since New England had been hit by a substantial hurricane, and few believed it could happen again. Hurricanes rarely persist after encountering the cold waters of the North Atlantic. However, this hurricane was moving north at an unusually rapid pace–more than 60 mph–and was following a track over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream…

Along the south shore of Long Island, the sky began to darken and the wind picked up. Fishermen and boaters were at sea, and summer residents enjoying the end of the season were in their beachfront homes. Around 2:30 p.m., the full force of the hurricane made landfall, unfortunately around high tide. Surges of ocean water and waves 40 feet tall swallowed up coastal homes. At Westhampton, which lay directly in the path of the storm, 150 beach homes were destroyed, about a third of which were pulled into the swelling ocean. Winds exceeded 100 mph. Inland, people were drowned in flooding, killed by uprooted trees and falling debris, and electrocuted by downed electrical lines.

Much more at the link. The hurricane even affected Vermont, highly unused to such things.

I remember the hurricane most particularly—and no, I wasn’t alive then—because a fictionalized version is depicted in a scene in a movie I saw many times as a child and loved: “Portrait of Jennie.” The date of the storm is changed to the 1920s, but there’s little doubt that the 1938 storm was actually the reference in this movie, which was made in 1948 (it’s one of the first films of the love-and-time-travel genre, by the way):

[NOTE: That hurricane chart only deals with hurricanes when they hit the continental US, so it eliminates even worse hurricanes that caused most of their destruction elsewhere. Among them are 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, affecting mostly Central America but causing a much greater loss of life from flooding, over 11,000 people, with winds measured at 180 mph. But then there was the Great Hurricane of 1780, which I’d never heard of but which is estimated to have caused about 22,000 fatalities. I plan to read up on that one, and perhaps write about it, in part because of the intriguing fact that 1780 was an especially bad year in terms of hurricanes. It certainly wasn’t due to AGW, but what might have been the cause?}

31 Responses to “Irma: the 7th worst US hurricane”

  1. Cornhead Says:

    There was a big blizzard in South Dakota 3-5 years ago. Lots of dead cattle. No MSM coverage. And, of course, many infamous blizzards on the Great Plains. People getting lost and froze to death walking to the barn.

    History is more than one’s own lifetime.

  2. Griffin Says:

    These things are always going to be hard to compare. For the reasons you stated death tolls will never be the same as the past storms such as Galveston. But the financial damage is far greater now because so much more development has taken place in danger zones.

    Wind speed or just plain energy would be a good way to judge but that gets harder the further back you go as the data is almost certainly less reliable and climate and meteorological types have no qualms in changing past data to fit their needs.

  3. Mike K Says:

    There was a 1939 hurricane in Newport Beach CA that was described in a local sailing rag twenty years ago. The writer had been a teenager crewing on John Ford’s big schooner as a summer job. Aboard were several movie stars and Ford’s professional skipper who looked at the sky and diagnosed a hurricane. They were at Catalina at the time and the Newport Beach entrance was too hazardous to try to run for home. They rode out the storm between Catalina and San Clemente Island just southwest. The movie stars made sandwiches and waited on the teenaged crewmen and they all survived quite well.

    Video from the storm.

  4. Gringo Says:

    But the New England storm of 1938—whether it made that list or not—was no slouch in the fatalities department and is said to have killed about 700 people…

    A family friend recently wrote a biography of her father, which includes some information on the 1938 hurricane in New England. The author, who was only 5 years old at the time of the hurricane, still remembers the screeching and howling of the hurricane. Following is a summary of the 1938 hurricane.

    Their house was 40-45 miles inland. Even at 40-45 miles inland, there was a smell of salt spray in the air. The salt spray stripped deciduous trees of their leaves. The salt spray turned conifers brown. The amount of salt in the wind would vary throughout the storm- and after the storm. Even two weeks after the storm, the wind would deposit salt on window panes.

    A hurricane in 1815 also had salt spray damage at a similar distance inland.

    A maple tree, an estimated 4 feet in diameter, got blown down. Her father, in the “if you have lemons make lemonade” mode, made use of all the trees on the property that the hurricane had blown down. He built a log cabin out of the felled trees!

  5. vanderleun Says:

    The breathless hyping of this storm and the last few reminds me of the short sardonic review of the “Nouveau Beaujolais” by a French critic:

    “The Wine of the Century as usual.”

  6. miklos000rosza Says:

    Weather. Big ratings jump for the Weather Channel. Here in Portland, Oregon we had the Columbus Day Storm of 1960 or so, which knocked over the apricot tree in our backyard, but I was too young for it to mean that much. I do remember walking around the next day and seeing all the fallen trees.

    I guess these days it would be called the Indigenous Species and Squirrel Storm or maybe just Vertical Features Bend Sideways Event #12.

  7. y81 Says:

    Where I come from (NYC, plus a summer house on Long Island), that 1938 storm is referred to as the “Long Island Express.” I had never even heard it described as a New England event.

  8. Gringo Says:

    I had never even heard it described as a New England event.

    Nor did New England residents refer to it as a New York event.

  9. Jim Miller Says:

    From Wikipedia:

    “The Great Galveston Hurricane[1], known regionally as the Great Storm of 1900 [2][3][4], was a Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 145 mph (233 km/h), which made landfall on September 8, 1900, in Galveston, Texas, in the United States. It killed 6,000 to 12,000 people, making it the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.”

    Note the great uncertainty about the death toll.

  10. CV Says:

    I was in Tulum in 2012 and many people mentioned that the area was still recovering from Hurricane Wilma, which devastated the Yucatán peninsula in 2005:

    We stayed in a newer house, across from the beach, that had walls of very thick masonry. It was basically a concrete bunker, albeit a very beautiful one. They are accustomed to hurricanes in the Caribbean, of course, but Wilma was one for the record books.

  11. blert Says:

    September 8, 1900: A long-lived tropical cyclone trekked across the Caribbean and moved over Cuba. On September 4, the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau began receiving warnings from the Bureau’s central office in Washington, D.C., that a tropical storm had moved northward over Cuba. The Weather Bureau forecasters had little way of knowing where the storm exactly was, and referenced climatology, preferring a storm track towards the middle Gulf coast. Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico were ripe for further strengthening of the storm. The Gulf had seen little cloud cover for several weeks, and the seas were as warm as bathwater, according to one report. The hurricane moved west-northwest towards the Texas coast. The last train to reach Galveston left Houston on the morning of the September 8 at 9:45 a.m. It found the tracks washed out, and passengers were forced to transfer to a relief train on parallel tracks to complete their journey. Even then, debris on the track kept the train’s progress at a crawl. As the hurricane neared, conditions in Texas deteriorated, and residents just thought it was a thunderstorm. When the hurricane made landfall, it was of category four intensity. It destroyed the city of Galveston, and led to the rise of Houston. Although damage was significant across Galveston Island, the human toll was higher. The death toll is estimated to lie between 8,000-12,000.

    Galveston — wiki.

    The entire town was wiped clean from the map.

  12. neo-neocon Says:


    At the link I gave, it says: “Also called the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.”

  13. CV Says:

    My dad remembers the great New England hurricane of 1938, when he was six years old. When the wind began rolling in, he was playing outside his home in the Old Harbor housing project in South Boston. He recalls being picked up by the fierce wind and blown hard against a chain link fence that ran between the housing project and railroad tracks. His mother was terrified of course, and he remembers her screaming his name (Jackie) before she was able to pull him inside to ride out the storm safely. He just celebrated his 85th birthday.

  14. huxley Says:

    In 1960 Hurricane Donna killed 13 people in Florida when the population was ~5 mil. I was there in Florida in Donna’s eye when she hit.

    Today the Florida population is over 20 mil. and maybe 8 people have died in the US.

    It’s apples and oranges, of course, but all this “worst hurricane’ needs some historical context.

  15. Richard Aubrey Says:

    When the hurricane of ’38 struck, my father was at football practice at Norwich [CT] Free Academy. When it started to get bad, the coach said to keep your gear on and go help people.
    My grandfather ran a Mohican grocery store. They had an arrangement with the local militia to start baking bread as fast as they could, with whomever happened to be there.
    It scoured off various coastal settlements which, due to the Depression and war, were never rebuilt.

  16. yara Says:

    In William Manchester’s book, “The Glory and the Dream”, he has an interesting recollection of the ’38 NE hurricane. IIRC, he attributes some of the lack of notoriety for that storm to the other event occurring in Europe at the same time, Hitler’s threat to invade Czechoslovakia, which led to the Munich agreement and Chamberlain’s infamous “peace in our time” speech.

  17. yara Says:

    On a more personal note, my father-in-law who was a student at Trinity University (Hartford, CT) at the time, told us a few stories about what he saw as he traveled to school that year from Philadelphia.

  18. FOAF Says:

    “1780 was an especially bad year in terms of hurricanes. It certainly wasn’t due to AGW, but what might have been the cause?”

    Trump. Or Bush. Gotta be one or the other.

  19. AesopFan Says:

    We visited Galveston often while living in South Texas. The city was built up by trucking in fill dirt to raise the streets one entire floor. You could tour the old mansions where the front door now opened into what had been the second floor, then go down into the “basement” that had originally been at ground level.
    Kind of spooky.

    This is an amazing picture, for context.
    And shows how big America is.
    Europeans don’t have a clue.

  20. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    There are still historical markers beside Rte 13 in Concord about the Hurricane of ’38, and most people of my parents’ generation had a story to tell about it, including the flooding after. It caught people by surprise, which magnified its psychological impact.

    As for 1780, that was when the Little Ice Age was drawing to a close, so someone is going to claim that it was due to global warming.

  21. Mac Says:

    There’s an excellent book about the Galveston hurricane, Isaac’s Storm. I live on the Gulf coast and read it during hurricane season. Not necessarily the best idea but I guess it gave the book some extra power.

  22. Surellin Says:

    Just for kicks I checked what the 1938 storm did at Mt. Washington, known for high winds anyway. 163 mph and messed up the cog railway. Bad, but well off its record of 231 mph.

  23. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    The Galveston 1900 storm produced a double whammy of a storm surge. Not only did it force the Gulf onto the island, it also filled and eventually over ran the island from Galveston Bay.

    Smarter people had urged Galveston to build a seawall in 15 or so years before 1900, after the 1886 Indianola storm. Indianola had been the second largest port in Texas, after Galveston, but was abandoned after two devastating storms in 1875 and 1886. They got the message: get out.

  24. jim Says:

    I believe the lower casualty rate in more recent hurricanes has a lot more to do with better technology, both the ability to evacuate and to connect to the masses, than it does with any issues involving the warming of the atmosphere, an indisputable fact according to the meteorological community.

  25. Christina Laczko Says:

    Agnes is the storm I heard about growing up in PA. Happened in 1972. It didn’t even make the list?

    In the state of Pennsylvania, more than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were destroyed. Due to the destroyed houses, at least 220,000 people were left homeless.[40] The damage and death toll was the highest in Pennsylvania, with 50 fatalities and $2.3 billion in losses in that state alone.

  26. Mac Says:

    Yes, that’s true. One of the things that makes Isaac’s Storm a gripping read is the fact that the people of Galveston didn’t know what was coming. They had some warning, but not that much, and no idea that it was going to be that bad. If you’ve been through a hurricane, and try to imagine what it would have been like to see the early signs without having any idea of what to expect, and then things getting worse, and worse, and worse….

    I’ve heard stories of people on the Mississippi Gulf coast not taking the warnings about Camille seriously enough, having hurricane parties in multi-story apartment buildings of which nothing but the foundations remained afterwards. [shudder]

  27. neo-neocon Says:


    New Hampshire, especially the northern part (where Mt. Washington is), was affected by the storm a lot less than more southern parts of New England and Long Island.

  28. Sam L. Says:

    Did The Farmer’s Almanac predict the storm?

  29. Frog Says:

    Gosh, we did not have weather satellites in 1900, or even 1938, or 1969 for Camille. Whose fault is that? Who failed- F-A-I-L-E-D -to warn residents in these storm’ paths?

    I remember Camille. It caused torrential flooding and the deaths of more than a few in the Blue Ridge Mtns, who lived and had lived close to small mountain brooks as their water supply for two-three centuries. Something like 20″ fell on Nelson County, VA in short order, deemed the highest possible rate of rainfall at the time. In the night.

  30. AesopFan Says:

    “Something like 20″ fell on Nelson County, VA in short order, deemed the highest possible rate of rainfall at the time. In the night.”

    On a smaller scale, but just as devastating, are the river floods that result from unprecedented rainfall like this (sometimes abetted by broken dams).
    On the micro-scale, all good campers know not to pitch their tents in or near a “dry” riverbed.

  31. TommyJay Says:

    Galveston was a biggie.

    While not all that big, an interesting hurricane from yesteryear was the New York hurricane of 1893. Purportedly a Cat 1 it mostly erased the barrier island called Hog Island near Rockaway Beach.

    It had a small development of beach resort business operations and was a favorite getaway for Tammany Hall politicians.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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