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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 10/15/2012

Hurricane Hazel set Washington’s wind speed record; linked to fatal hurricane hunter crash


Hazel’s track across the U.S. into Canada. (National Weather Service)
By mid-October the chances of a hurricane hitting the mid-Atlantic region are almost zero. It’s time to begin worrying about extratropical cyclones like the “Snowtober” snowstorm at the end of last October that gave a glancing blow to the Washington area and paralyzed parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

While the odds of an October hurricane here are extremely low, they aren’t zero.

Fifty-eight years ago On Oct. 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel, which had come ashore in South Carolina just south of Wilmington, N.C., set the sustained wind speed record, which still stands, of 78 mph with a gust to 98 mph at Washington’s National Airport. At the time the storm’s center was racing north over Hagerstown, Md., at speeds up to 55 mph.

The NWS reported that Hazel killed 13 people in Virginia, 6 in Maryland and 3 in the District of Columbia. Damages in 1954 dollars were estimated at $15 million in Virginia, $8 to $10 million in Maryland and close to $1 million in D.C.

As it moved inland over South and North Carolina, Hazel merged with an extratropical cyclone centered over Canada. It raced north along the cyclone’s cold front across Pennsylvania, western New York, and Lake Ontario to hit downtown Tornado, Canada by midnight where its wind and flooding rain killed 81 people in Canada’s Ontario Province. Hurricane-strength winds of 77 mph hit parts of Toronto.

Hazel helped put 2 Canadians on fatal hurricane flight

Canadian interest in hurricanes after Hazel hit Toronto in 1954 helped lead the Toronto Star to assign a reporter and photographer to fly on the only hurricane hunter airplane to crash in a storm since hurricane flying began during World War II.

They were aboard because after the damage and deaths Hurricane Hazel had caused around Toronto in 1954, Canadian papers were closely following hurricane news, including sending reporters on hurricane flights as U.S. news organizations continue doing.

The U.S. Navy and the Army Air Forces (predecessor to the Air Force) began flying airplanes into hurricanes in 1944 to collect data for forecasters. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Air Force Reserve continue flying into hurricanes with no crashes since the one in 1955.

The fatal flight was a Navy P2-V-5F Neptune that disappeared inside Hurricane Janet on Sept. 26, 1955 when the hurricane was about 200 miles south of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea. The storm’s winds had been estimated at roughly 160 mph.

No wreckage from the airplane was found and the Navy never determined a cause for the accident.

In addition to the nine-man Navy crew those aboard included Alfred O Tate, a reporter for the Daily Star and his photographer, John D. Cronk.

From 1944 until 1974, three Air Force planes crashed during typhoon flights with a loss of 25 lives. The Air Force ended typhoon flights in 1987.

Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flies two WP-3D Orion airplanes into hurricanes and other storms for research. The U.S. Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flies WC-130J Hercules airplanes into hurricanes to collect data for the National Hurricane Center.

Information on crashes is from “Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth” by Dr. Bob Sheets and Jack Williams, New York, 2001.

By Jack Williams  |  10:45 AM ET, 10/15/2012

Categories:  Tropical Weather, Latest

 
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