Storm surge can be a funny thing. Hurricane Carol in 1954 brought category 3 winds to the Rhode Island shoreline and one of the most destructive storm surges in the last 100 years. Carol’s compact nature meant the truly destructive power of Carol was felt in a relatively small area from Old Lyme (near where the center crossed land) east to Newport.
Misquamicut and other South County beach communities were devastated by Carol in 1954. Hurricane Sandy brought sustained tropical storm force winds to Misquamicut and other beach communities from Westerly through Narragansett yet the storm surge in some cases was as destructive as Carol’s. How is that possible?
Sandy’s relatively slow forward speed and enormous size (partially due to its “hybrid” characteristics as a warm seclusion) resulted in a much larger surge than its Saffir-Simpson category would suggest. The large wind field and slow motion also produced unusually powerful long period swells on the Atlantic Ocean. In the case of ocean front beach communities like Misquamicut, while the surge was only on the order of 5 or 6 feet (compared to 10 ft or more from Carol) the wave action on top of that surge resulted in near complete destruction in some areas. Beaches in Rhode Island have no protection from the powerful swells that Sandy produced. The actual height of the surge is just one factor that determines a storm surge’s destruction potential. Wave action on top can be just as important in determining whether a home or business is flooded or whether it completely washes away.
This was also the case in some areas on the Connecticut coastline. While the inundation in towns like East Haven and Branford was similar in Sandy and Irene the onshore wind directed wave action right onto the coastline during Irene while the more easterly wind in Sandy directed the waves parallel rather than orthogonal to the coast.
One of the Sandy’s casualties was the Andrea Hotel. The storm surge undermined the 100 year old building forcing the owners to tear it down. While down in Misquamicut on Wednesday covering the rebuilding effort I spoke with Rebecca Colucci who owns The Andrea with her family. On their Facebook page they have 2 really neat pictures from after Carol and after Sandy. After Hurricane Carol the owner buried a number of cars under the sand to help reinforce the dune that protected the hotel. After Sandy the remnants of many of those cars were unearthed.
Imagine the trouble someone would get in now burying cars in the sand to help shore up a dune?? The good news is that Misquamicut is coming back to life. Restaurants and bars are reopening and most businesses are planning on rebuilding.