For those who live in the Garden State and the New York City area, and think that a major hurricane isn't possible here better think again. This weekend commemorates the 185th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1821. On September 3rd that summer, a Category Four Hurricane rapidly moved up the east coast. As a matter of fact, the storm moved from North Carolina's outer banks to the New York City area in just ten hours. This storm struck the Cape May area of extreme South Jersey, and moved up along a path that is covered by the Garden State Parkway today.
Like the major storms of today, this hurricane caused a lot of damage and devastation, but it also served as an important moment in the study of hurricanes, particularly early ones. Data collected from this storm was researched thoroughly by an amateur meteorologist, who used his work to publish an article in the Journal of Science that would lay the foundation for our understanding of these storms. The most important lesson learned from this storm though is the fact that despite how rare it can be, hurricanes can happen here.
The Great Hurricane of 1821 was a classic Cape Verde storm. Originating off the African coast, the hurricane was picked up by ships near Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The storm headed northward, where on September 3rd, it was in Cape Hatteras by dawn, the Virginia Capes by noon, and in Delaware Bay by mid-afternoon according to the book, Great Storms of the Jersey Shore written by Larry Savadore and Margaret Thomas Buchholz. Coastal areas in the tip of Southern New Jersey such as Cape May were separated from the rest of that Southern Jersey Peninsula while heavy tree damage was reported on Long Beach Island in Ocean County.
According to an article written by Kirk Moore and Todd Bates of the Asbury Park Press on July 23, 2006, Cape May was known as Cape Island, which was appropriate, especially when a "wall of water surged across the peninsula from Delaware Bay to the sea." Today, tourists visit the Cape May Point and its lighthouse, a place where storm surge, wind and waves forced residents including fishermen, farmers, and children to flee for higher ground.
It was the only time on record that a major hurricane has impacted the Garden State. The hurricane produced 100 mph winds as far west as Philadelphia, and a thirteen foot storm surge in what is now today, the Battery Park section of lower Manhattan. The surge was the highest ever recorded in New York Harbor. Continuing further to the north, the Great Hurricane of 1821 didn't stop there. It roared through New England as well producing winds between minimal Category One strength, and strong Category Two strength on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
As mentioned in the book, Hurricane Watch by Jack Williams and former National Hurricane Center director, Bob Sheets, winds were reported by amateur meteorologist, William C. Redfield to be between seventy-five and one hundred miles per hour in Connecticut. Redfield noted a peculiar quality about the damage created by this storm in Litchfield County, Connecticut as well as other parts of the Nutmeg state. It finished up by heading into the rest of New England, particularly, Worcester Massachussetts.
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While analyzing the aftermath of this hurricane, Redfield noticed that the damage pattern he observed in Litchfield County coupled with the storm observations given by others indicated that the winds came from the Southwest for a period of time. He then learned that damage some miles away suggested the wind blew at equal strength from the opposite direction, toward the South and Southeast. He used this analysis as a base for his later work that was published in the American Journal of Science. In his article, he stated that the damage pattern was created by a huge whirlwind, a large and compact storm circulation. This publication produced some debate, but it was a groundbreaking find.
Redfield's findings was the foundation for British Colonel William Reid's book, the Law of Storms, which was published in 1841. The same year of Redfield's publication in the American Journal of Science, Reid was dispatched by the British to the colony of Barbados in the West Indies to survey the damage caused by a fierce hurricane that struck there. There was tremendous damage and loss of life from that storm, but Reid's observations coupled with his research on Redfield, produced one of the renowned literary works on the subject of storms. Back to the storm, it had originated somewhere in the Tropical Atlantic, and was most likely a Cape Verde storm.
When Redfield intensified his efforts on researching this storm, he discovered ship logs in the Atlantic at the time of the hurricane, and found that the storm system was in the area of Grand Turk Island near the Southeastern Bahamas, and then moved northward. Moving up the Atlantic seaboard, Redfield was able to trace this monstrous storm through the Cape Hatteras area into Maryland, then the New York City area, and into his home in Litchfield County, Connecticut. The storm then proceeded into Worcester, Massachussetts and the rest of New England.
There has been much discussion throughout the 2006 season about the possibility of a major hurricane impacting the Northeast and New England. Some six years prior to the Great Hurricane of 1821, there had been another hurricane that struck the Northeastern United States as well. On September 23rd of 1815, one of the most powerful hurricanes to strike New England made landfall across Long Island. It ended up being the worst hurricane since the Colonial Hurricane of 1635 to hit this region. So, it can happen here in the Tri-State area.
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These two pre-modern era storms were actually very similar in tracks to the 1938 and 1944 storms, which would almost strike 123 years to the day of those two nineteenth century storms. The 1821 and 1944 storms had strikingly similar paths while the 1815 and 1938 storms were just as similar. More ironic was the fact that the 1938 Hurricane, also dubbed the Long Island Express, struck on almost the exact same date, and equaled that 1815 storm in intensity. Nevertheless, these storms proved that major hurricanes can happen here.
The problem for researchers is that they are unsure how often these storms happen in New Jersey. Until recently, forecasters, scientists, and researchers could only rely on such things as ship records and data from the National Hurricane Center. According to Kerry Emanuel's book, Divine Wind, there is a new field that has been created within the past several years called paleotempestology, which looks at coastal soil samples for sand deposits produced by ancient hurricanes. However, all we do know at this time is that hurricanes in New Jersey occur about once every eighty years or so, and major hurricanes occur about every 150 years.
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