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Connecticut's No Stranger to Hurricanes

Think Gloria was the worst? Wrong — the Nutmeg State has been plagued with its fair share of devastating hurricanes over the years.

Irene's come and gone, and Gloria did her damage in the 1980s, but even a state like Connecticut, not known as a trouble spot for hurricanes, has seen its fair share of devastating storms through the years. 

Records for New England hurricanes go back to the 17th century, and there were four recorded in that century alone: Aug. 4, 1609; Aug. 25, 1635; Aug. 23, 1683; and Oct. 29, 1693.Of these, the most intense was "The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635."

This hurricane drove up from the Jamestown, VA, area to the Plymouth, MA, area, making it a storm that hit the first two English settlements in North America. It is thought to have been a Category 3 type hurricane under the modern Saffir-Simpson classification system. The storm hit the Rhode Island/eastern Massachusetts area especially hard, killing dozens and destroying thousands of buildings. Scientists who have retrospectively examined this storm believe that it may have been a Category 4 storm when it hit the eastern tip of Long Island and hit eastern Massachusetts as a Category 3. It may have been the strongest hurricane ever to have hit New England.

Records for the 18th century are more complete, as the population of New England had dramatically increased. Thus, we can be quite sure that there were 11 hurricane-like storms in the 1700s. The most interesting year was 1782. In October of 1782, two hurricanes came up the coast and struck New England. The first hit on Oct. 8 and 9, causing heavy damage especially in the Providence, RI, area. The second October hurricane arrived 10 days later, striking the eastern Massachusetts area especially hard. This was a rare snow hurricane!

The 19th century saw 30 hurricanes affect New England, including another rare "Snowicane" in 1804. It brought with it two to three feet of snow in some areas. The so-called "Great September Gale" of 1815 is estimated to have killed 40 people. It created storm surge exceeding 10 feet in Narragansett Bay. Sept. 4, 1821, saw the "1821 Norwalk and Long Island Hurricane" strike the region. This storm barreled right through New York City before doing significant damage to New England. The "October Gale of 1841" struck on Oct. 3. It brought up to 18 inches of snow to New England. Though not killing anyone, "The Great Havana Hurricane" of 1846 hit Hartford with hurricane force winds and ruined the fruit crop in most of New England. By the end of the century, hurricanes were given numbers annually. Hurricane "Eight" struck the area on Nov. 1, 1899, to close out the century.

At least 28 tropical storm/hurricanes struck New England in the 20th Century. Unquestionably, the most devastating was the "Long Island Express" of Sept. 21, 1938 – by far the deadliest single hurricane in New England history (see photo gallery for its track and effects; best to click on "View Full Size.") Estimates place the death toll from the storm at 680 to 800 New Englanders, most of them in Rhode Island. The popular beach destinations of Misquamicut and Watch Hill were devastated by an enormous storm surge that approached 30 feet in height! Of the over 500 cottages at Misquamicut, only 5 survived the storm. Napatree Point, a long arm jutting into the ocean from Watch Hill, formerly had 38 homes built there. All were wiped out by the surge with many being carried more than a mile inland into the fields of Stonington. To this day, no homes have been built to replace them and none ever will. "The Long Island Express" devastated the region. It is estimated that the storm destroyed more than 2 billion trees in New York and New England! It remains the single largest destructive natural event in the 376-year history of Connecticut.

Another significant New England hurricane hit the area on Sept. 27, 1985. Hurricane Gloria caused eight deaths and millions of dollars worth of property destruction. It was a strong Category 1 storm; fortunately, it hit at low tide, so that damage and deaths from the storm surge were minimized.

The path that Gloria took is remarkably similar to the path of Hurricane Irene (see photo of tracks in the gallery above). Most of the deaths from Gloria occurred from falling trees. Connecticut was hit particularly hard, as nearly 700,000 people lost power for days – some even were without power for weeks. Gloria dropped between four to six inches of rain; forecasts place the amount of rain dropped by Irene at more than eight inches in parts of the state. Gloria struck at low tide; Irene struck at high tide. Additionally, Irene moved more slowly through the state than did Gloria, so its potential for wind damage and flash flooding were greater.

The word "hurricane" probably found its way into English through Spanish. While sailing for Spain, Christopher Columbus encountered a fierce tropical storm in the Caribbean in 1494. The storm sunk some of his ships. Supposedly, the word is derived from the Carib word "Hurican," the god of evil. Most scholars of language believe that "Hurican" is probably derived from the Mayan god "Hurakan," who blew his breath across the water to create life and then later destroyed life with a great storm and flood. Of the 18 states that have been known to have been affected by hurricanes since records have been kept, the six New England states constitute the very bottom of the rankings in terms of hurricane frequency, with Connecticut ranked as 14th on the list. Nevertheless, an estimated 1,300 to 1,600 New Englanders have lost their lives as a direct result of the great storms and floods caused by hurricanes through the years.

Notes, Sources, and Links

  1. http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/tcfaq/B4.html
  2. The top 5 states in terms of hurricane frequency in the 20th Century are as follows: Florida—57; Texas—36; Louisiana and North Carolina—25; South Carolina—14. (These figures do not include tropical storms.)
  3. The New England Hurricane (1938)by Leslie H. Tyler
  4. A Photographic Record of the New England Hurricane and Flood (1938) Circle Magazine.

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