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Hurricane History 101

How can you compare Sandy, Irene, the Hurricane of 1938, and even earlier storms to each other? Get a look at some statistics and anecdotes that give an idea how these storms impacted Shoreline Connecticut.

Hurricane Sandy continues to impact people who were displaced from their homes during the late October storm – many New Yorkers continue to have nowhere to go, and Branford and other towns are participating in donation drives to help support people in New Jersey who are struggling to get by. While most of us on the Shoreline have been able to get back to our regularly scheduled lives, others continue to feel Sandy's presence.

No one doubts that Sandy was a bad storm. In fact, news sites have said that Sandy comes in as the second costliest Atlantic storm to 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. How does it compare to earlier hurricanes? Here is a breakdown of some of the statistics from Sandy:

SANDY, Category 2

Windspeed: The maximum sustained windspeed was 80 mph, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fatalities: 131 in the U.S. – 209 for all countries affected

Estimated cost: More than $52 billion in the U.S.

Power outages: 6.2 million Americans impacted

How does that compare to 2011's Irene?

IRENE, Category 1 (at landfall)

Windspeed: Sustained windspeeds after landfall were also about 80 mph.

Fatalities: 49

Estimated cost: $15.6 billion in the U.S.

Power outages: Nearly 1 million Americans lost power

So, clearly, Irene didn't have the same oomph that Sandy had a year later.

HURRICANE OF 1938, Category 5

In 1938, the U.S. was a different place. The population of the whole country was only 129,824,939, compared to the over 314 million who live in the U.S. today. So numerically, not as many people would lose power, because not as many people were living in the Atlantic region. Likewise, the damage costs, even rounded up for inflation, are less than the modern costs, because development was not as dense during those years. It's a good thing, too, because with the devastation wrought by the Hurricane of 1938, one can only imagine what those costs would have been for a population like we have now.

Windspeed: Sustained windspeed was measured at the Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts as 121 mph, with gusts at 186 mph.

Fatalities: More than 600

Estimated cost: 308 million in 1938 dollars, which is about $5 billion in modern equivalency

Power outages: This one is hard to gauge, population wise. In Sudden Sea by R. A. Scotti, the author writes that "so many miles of telephone, telegraph, and power lines were down they could stretch four-fifths of the way around the world." He also notes that 500,000 phones were dead.

The tree damage in 1938 was also severe – certainly described as worse than the damage seen in the last two years. Cherie Burns, writing in The Great Hurricane: 1938 described, "In New Haven, every tree seemed to be down. Each successive town toward the east had been harder hit." Burns reports an estimated 275 million trees were lost across New England. The damage quite literally cut even neighboring towns off from each other – people couldn't go places, had no electricity, no phone service, and no real way of knowing what was going on elsewhere except to rely on their local ham radio operators, who were still getting news from the outside world.

Karen True described one account from Branford during the storm:

My mother, Anna Yasevac Belmonte, told me that Hammer Field was so badly flooded that people were getting through in rowboats! Also, what we used to call the MIF bridge, the underpass by the Meadow Restaurant (the Eel Pot, owned by the Yasevacs), and roadway on Indian Neck Ave. by the bridge were all under water.

Melinda Tillie of East Haven wrote:

I can remember my Mom saying how she turned on the radio but nothing much at all about the storm. She called my Dad who was working in gaarage to come in the trees were really going nuts. They lived on Sidney Street but it was terrible all over,so they told me.

What I found most interesting about the research for this column was that even the great hurricane of '38 might not have been the "worst" storm to hit Shoreline Connecticut. Two hurricanes from earlier periods are also on record as tremendously bad storms: the hurricane of 1635, recorded by eye-witnesses who said that whole forests were leveled by the wind, and the later Gale of 1815, which was later classified as a Category 3 hurricane. Of course, the population of the U.S. in those days was even smaller, so fewer total number of people were impacted – though the proportions may have been higher. Despite New England's infrequent brushes with truly brutal storms, those that we have had are certainly memorable, and Sandy is sure to be numbered among them.

SolarPete November 21, 2012 at 12:32 PM
what about the storm of 62 or 63 Harbor street flooded out and at the point the water was cresting at the swings at high tide The places that flood is because they all were once marsh and over the years they have been back filled in for usable land Tabor floods cause it was once all marshHammer field was once marsh
Alana Joli Abbott November 21, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Hey Pete, do you mean the Great Atlantic Storm of '62? They classified that one as a Nor'easter. Certainly produced a lot of flooding, tho! And yes, I imagine that the marsh land does create a fertile ground for flooding!

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