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Damage from 1938's Long Island Express

Hurricane Sandy in context

By Jeff Stensland, stenslan@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3686

Hurricane Sandy’s late October battering of the Northeast coast left modern-day meteorologists dumbfounded, but University of South Carolina professor Cary Mock is less surprised.

Mock, a professor of geography at USC’s College of Arts and Sciences, is one of only a handful of researchers in the country studying climatology using old manuscript material, and he specializes in unearthing information about major storms occurring prior to the late 1700s. He said Sandy, while extremely costly, tragic and rare, is not without historical comparisons. “It’s not that these events never happen,” he said. “When you look at it historically, large storms themselves are not that unusual.”

Sandy is responsible for an estimated 110 deaths so far and damage is expected to reach $50 billion, ranking second only to Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf in 2005. It’s also the only hurricane in the top 10 costliest to make landfall in the Northeast instead of the Southern U.S.

But historically speaking, the Northeast has seen its share of hurricanes and other big storms: the Long Island Express of 1938 killed about 600 people; the Great September Gale of 1815 destroyed 500 homes and 35 ships; the Snow Hurricane of 1804 brought up to 3 feet of snow to New England. Going back even further, the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 leveled thousands of trees from Jamestown to Plymouth. And archeological evidence points to Category 3 and above hurricanes hitting New England prior to Colonial times.

In between those storms were dozens that rivaled Sandy in intensity, but never made a direct hit on the Northeast coast. Mock points to the Halloween Nor’easter of 1991, immortalized by the book and film “The Perfect Storm,” as an example of a relatively recent storm that could have caused damage similar to Sandy had it made landfall.

“Whether or not they hit land is more a matter of random luck. In Sandy’s case, it’s bad luck,” he said.

Gathering reliable information about storms that occurred hundreds of years ago is labor intensive. While the first known working barometer dates back to 1643, they were primitive instruments by today’s standards and not widely used. Getting accurate accounts of pre-modern storms takes scouring through old newspapers, personal diaries and ship log books often housed in musty historical society libraries.

“This was before there was a U.S. Weather Bureau or anything, so you have to rely on other sources,” Mock said. “Some of the first-hand accounts aren’t very good. But if you have records that giant trees were uprooted over a 10-mile area, that’s pretty telling.”

One of the best places to look for information is ships’ logs, such as those kept by Navy ships and on whaling vessels. By analyzing detailed wind direction measurements aboard multiple ships on the same date, researchers can apply modern knowledge of meteorology to paint a picture of what the storm might have been like.

Aside from analyzing the history of East Coast storms, Mock is also studying large typhoons (hurricanes of the Pacific), which have a much deadlier history than hurricanes in the United States. Typhoons that hit Hong Kong in 1906 and 1937 killed as many as 15,000. The death toll of a 1922 typhoon that hit Swatow on the eastern coast of China is estimated at 100,000.

Mock said his interest in hurricanes stems from an early fascination with extreme weather and naturally occurring disasters, beginning with avalanches he learned to fear as a skier. He hopes the practical application of his work will lead to better preparation for big storms in the future.

“Parts of populated Asia are much better prepared than they were and you would usually not see that many deaths today,” he said. “This (research) tells us about what might happen. If you’re looking at what building codes should be, do you plan for a 100-year event, the 200-year event?”

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Posted: 11/07/12 @ 2:45 PM | Updated: 11/07/12 @ 3:10 PM | Permalink

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