Eighty years ago today – the Chesapeake and Potomac hurricane

Via the Maryland Historic Society: Ocean City, MD. View of the damage after the hurricane of 1933, A. Aubrey Bodine, 1933, MC8230-A, MdHS.

Via the Maryland Historic Society:  “Ocean City, MD. View of the damage after the hurricane of 1933, A. Aubrey Bodine, 1933, MC8230-A, MdHS.”

It was considered the storm of the century by many people.  Immense property losses added to the woes of the Great Depression. Many farmers, watermen, and merchants lost everything. Some smaller communities never completely recovered.

That was the way it was on August 23, 1933, as noted by Rick Schwartz, author of Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States, and referenced by Jason Samenow in his post of August 23. 2008, 75 years later.

Now, eighty years later, I will try to focus on other aspects of this great storm and its aftermath.

Surpassed in number* only by the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, the 20 storms of the 1933 season, as in 2005, started early (May 14th) and ended late (November 15th).

But it was the eighth storm and the third hurricane** of that busy hurricane season that would ultimately cause such great devastation in the Mid-Atlantic.  Forming on August 17 near the Leeward Islands, it quickly developed into a category 2 and later, a category 4 hurricane before weakening somewhat, but remaining a prodigious threat.

Track of August 23, 1933 Chesapeake and Potomac hurricane (National Weather Service)

Track of August 23, 1933 Chesapeake and Potomac hurricane (National Weather Service)

Caught in a west-northwesterly flow, the storm moved steadily toward the Mid-Atlantic, crossing the coastline near Norfolk as a strong tropical storm on August 23. From there, the disturbance  continued on to a point just west of the District, causing 50 mph winds here.

With this track, the entire Eastern shore was placed in the dangerous eastern semi-circle of the circulation, allowing easterly gales to pile up water along the coastline. 

Later, with winds shifting to the south, a strong “tidal bore”*** was generated, causing major Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River flooding.  (For more details on D.C.’s storm damage, refer to Jason’s earlier post.)    Up to then, the storm’s track and intensity was similar to that of Hurricane Isabel (September, 2003), which caused widespread devastation throughout the Potomac watershed and beyond.

After passing through the Mid-Atlantic, the 1933 storm moved up through Pa. and NY State, where it ultimately made a right turn and went out to sea, dissipating in the process.  All in all, the storm was well forecast by the then U.S. Weather Bureau, considering the relatively primitive technology at the time.  Prior to landfall, an advisory read:

Atlantic coast disturbances central about 150 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, moving slightly north of west. Center will cross southern coast of North Carolina early Wednesday forenoon, preceded by dangerous shifting gales tonight between Virginia Capes and Southport, NC. Advise all interests.

Unfortunately, however, due to the relative mistrust of weather forecasts during that era, warnings were not heeded as much as they should have been.

The above forecast is in stark contrast to the one, just 5 years later, for the so-called “Long Island Express,” or New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, when the Boston weather bureau office had believed (except for a young meteorological clerk, so the story goes) that a hurricane off the Mid-Atlantic coast would curve harmlessly out to sea and miss New England completely.  Instead, as has been well documented, the storm turned inland, causing enormous property damage and over 600 fatalities.  It was one of the worst weather disasters in New England history.  As it is almost the 75th anniversary of that great storm, we will soon try to revisit its fury.

So it’s clear that it wasn’t so much the winds of 1933’s hurricane No. 3 that decimated the Mid-Atlantic.  It was the storm surge and the tidal bore that caused such extensive property damage.

Former Ocean City Mayor Roland “Fish” Powell, then 5 years old, remembered it well.  In an interview 10 years ago with The Dispatch, of Ocean City, he said:

I was pretty young at the time, but I remember that storm and the Inlet being cut …  We lived on Dorchester Street and Tom Cropper took his grandson and me and another boy and told us he was going to show us something we would probably never see again in our lives. Well, we went down there and saw water pouring across from the bay to the ocean.

Powell said the amazing spectacle drew crowds of curious onlookers when the storm had finally subsided.

“People were lined up just staring at it and it kept getting wider and wider,” he said. “Seeing that tide roll through there and carrying the battered old railroad bridge and all of those buildings with it was really an amazing thing.”

Here is some incredible video footage, courtesy the Maryland Historical Society, showing the inlet being cut:

Ocean City Hurricane,1933 from Maryland Historical Society on Vimeo.

Powell’s statement, “Well, we went down there and saw water pouring across from the bay to the ocean,” is significant, because, as The Dispatch points out, most people think that it was the ocean that breached the dunes, instead of vice versa.  The Paper states:

The surging water that built up in the bays finally breached the sandy barrier island at the south end of Ocean City at its lowest point. Three entire streets at the south end of town were washed away by the tide that flowed from the back bays toward the ocean. By the time the storm subsided, the streets washed away by the surging tide were completely underwater and remain under the Inlet to this day.

Despite the havoc, there always seems to be a silver lining with storms of such magnitude.  And for the fishing industry of Ocean City, Md,. the benefit was clear.

The Ocean City Inlet today, which separates Assateague Island National Seashore.  The white lines depict where Assateague was originally connected to Ocean City. (Virginiaplaces.org)

The Ocean City Inlet today, which separates Assateague Island National Seashore. The white lines depict where Assateague was originally connected to Ocean City. (Virginiaplaces.org)

Although the boardwalk was reduced to rubble, the old railroad bridge crossing Sinepuxent Bay from the mainland was destroyed and, generally, the city suffered enormous damage, Ocean City fisherman were ecstatic over the newly formed inlet.

(By the way, “the railroad that had been the economic lifeline to the community [since the 1880s] never returned”  according to the Delmarva Daily Times. But nine years later, U.S. Route 50 replaced the bridge, allowing the city’s tourism to skyrocket.)

The 50-foot wide, 8-foot deep chasm (much wider now) was something that the seafood industry had been fighting to have done for years, so that Ocean City could become—and did become—an important Mid-Atlantic commercial fishing hub, with sheltering bays and easy access to the fertile Atlantic.  As a matter of fact, it was just before the storm when, in a failed petition to Congress led by Senator Millard Tydings, that the last effort was made.

Now in just 36 hours, Mother Nature accomplished what would’ve cost the State of Maryland millions of dollars.

After the storm, despite some wrangling about whether the newly carved inlet should remain, business interests prevailed and the inlet was permanently stabilized with a network of jetties.   However, the impact of these jetties plus a combination of other factors, including, sea level rise and “island rollover” (where storms re-deposit sand from ocean beaches to the other side), has caused the northern portion of Assateague Island to migrate about 2/3 of a mile westward.  And, according to the National Park Service, the entire 37-mile stretch of the island is doing the same, to one degree or another. (See the aerial photo.)

Due to its ongoing (and costly) beach replenishment and dredging projects, Ocean City has, so far, been able to avoid this fate.

Footnotes

*28 named storms, 15 of which became hurricanes

**Hurricanes were not officially named until 1950, when the military naming system (Able, Baker, Charlie, etc) was temporarily used for a 3-year period.  In 1953, for a variety of reasons, the National Hurricane Center began using female names, a system that lasted until 1979, when the current system of alternating female and male names was begun.  For more information on the National Hurricane Center’s naming system, see Jack Williams’ May 14, 2013 post on this subject.

***A similar effect to what happens in Canada’s  Bay of Fundy, except that there, damage from the 55-foot tidal surge is usually non existent, barring any severe storms which can strengthen the effect.  The Bay of Fundy tidal effect is, in fact, a tourist mecca.

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