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History Corner: Did They Have Hurricanes Then?

History Corner: Did They Have Hurricanes Then?

If records could go back to the days when North Milford was settled, we would have to look carefully at the diary of John Downs.  Mr. Downs lived in a homestead which is now on High Street in Milford but was once in the Kings Highway Cemetery, down in back.  When the cemetery needed additional room, the house was to be demolished but the Milford Historical Society took it upon themselves to dismantle it and bring it to its property where two other colonial era houses now stand.

Going into early records of hurricanes, one can find a familiar area of our country, Galveston, a 1900 hurricane of intense proportions.  Having been sited in the Atlantic on August of that year, it’s path and intensity was not known.  On September 3, it moved into the Gulf of Mexico and intensified on its way to Galveston.  Moving north after it devastated this Texas town it sored up, into the Great Plains turning north up to the Great Lakes, charging into New England and southeastern Canada.  By September 15, it was spotted in the North Atlantic.

Now this can’t help our neighbors to the south feel any better just because this storm was the deadliest weather disaster in United States history with its tides largely responsible for 8000 deaths!  At that time, the damage was estimated at $30 million.  No wonder it is recorded as a “killer”.

It was in 1919 that another cyclone was spotted near the Lesser Antilles on September 2 and this storm swept into the Bahamas as a full-fledged hurricane.  Onward to the Straights of Florida, it continued west to once again hit Texas not before its eye passed over Key West.  A storm surge of over 12 feet inundated Corpus Christi but no wind measurements were recorded.  It is, however, to be known as the 3rd most intense storm to hit the United States.

These facts can almost be the story of Harvey and Jose with Maria yet to give us a glimpse of her intentions.  In 1926, winds of nearly 150 miles per hour hitting the northern portion of Puerto Rico.  Meteorological warnings were not issued and Miami, with its booming population, was faced with a category 4 hurricane.  This time the storm surge was over 15 feet in Coconut Grove.  To get a good perspective of these vast storm areas, one needs a good map of the Atlantic islands and Florida’s vast hurricane areas.

Not knowing about the eye of a hurricane, people ventured out as the lull meant that the storm was over only to be hit with the eastern edge of the storm.  Every building in the downtown district of Miami was either damaged or destroyed.  Hundreds of people perished.  The Great Miami Hurricane, as it is called, ended the economic boom in south Florida which in today’s currency would have been a $490 billion disaster.

The San Felipe-Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 is listed as the 4th strongest to reach the United States.  In San Juan 144 mile an hour winds were reported.  One thousand eight hundred and thirty six people died in Florida with 312 in Puerto Rico and 18 more in the Bahamas.  This hurricane is named for the lake that was hit with a lake surge of over 9 feet causing the surrounding area to be inundated thus the high death toll.

Now the southern portion of the United States seems to be the brunt of hurricanes but in 1938, “The Long Island Express” charged up the coast and brought 100-150 mile an hour winds to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  Not happy there, it continued northward slamming into Long Island and Connecticut as a category 3 hurricane producing Connecticut River flooding.  Without warning this deadly storm caused 600 deaths and devastated the coastal towns being considered the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.  It was expected to hit Florida, once again but it headed north, moving parallel to the eastern seaboard.

It had been over a century since New England had been hit by a substantial hurricane and few believed it could happen again.  Hurricanes rarely persist after reaching the colder waters in the north but this one found the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and continued on its trek to an uninformed public.  There was nothing scientific in place to warn the area and by the time the U.S. Weather Bureau learned that the category 3 storm was on a collision course with Long Island, it was too late for a warning.

As the sky began to darken, the wind picked up and fishermen and boaters as well as summer residents were enjoying the end of the summer in their beachfront homes.  The full force of the hurricane came at high tide and the ocean waters were churning with waves 40 feet tall, swallowing the coastal homes.  Winds exceed 100 miles per hour and uprooted trees and falling debris killed many people.  Some were even electrocuted by downed electrical lines.

Roadways disappeared, rivers were swollen and in New London, a short circuit in a flooded building started a fire and with winds fanning the fire, most of the business district was consumed.  Rhode Island was next in line and the downtown area was submerged under 13 feet of water with many people being swept away.  Even “Old Iron Sides” the historic U.S.S. Constitution was pulled from it moorings but due to its design, it did not suffer much damage.  However nearly 3000 ships were sunk or damaged, innumerable trees fell with railroads and farms obliterated.  This was the storm that people still talk about, as its equal value today would be $18 billion.

One storm that devastated the war efforts in WW II was the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.  Although it wreaked havoc along the coast from North Carolina to Maine, the loss of 5 ships and 344 lives was, at best, the worst of the “Great Atlantic”.  The loss of a U.S. Navy Destroyer, a minesweeper, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters and a light vessel added to the $100 million in damages.

It is not known by this author if records are kept of hurricanes in the 18th century.  One needs to rely on diaries and as previously mentioned the diary of John Downs has been translated and as near as I can tell there were several entries that bespeaks of a hurricane type storm.  In 1769, he writes “stormy with high winds and rain on the 8th of September and on the 9th he continues with “violent winds last night and rain”.  In September of 1770 he talks about rain from the 11th to the 15th noting “flying” clouds.  In 1777, he notes cloudy and high winds on the 17th.  The only other entry in John Downs’ diary is for August 12th with “high winds” and for the 13th “rain last night high winds” with rain continuing until the 15th.  Wouldn’t you just love to know a little more about those days?  Mr. Downs was a weaver but he did have crops and he did not note anything damaged in these windy conditions but it’s hard to believe that there weren’t any hurricanes in the 18th century.

What do you think?

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