Final Report on Tropical Storm Irene Released

The Tropical Cyclone Report for Hurricane Irene was released this week by the National Hurricane Center. There’s not much in here we didn’t already know. Not surprisingly the New Jersey landfall has been downgraded from a hurricane to a 70 mph tropical storm (note: the highest winds were offshore and not on land).

What was a bit of a surprise to me was that Connecticut garnered just 1 mention in the body of the 45-page report. Besides the historic flooding in Vermont and the Catskills the worst impact from Irene in terms of wind damage and storm surge was here in Connecticut.ย  Here’s the closest reference to Connecticut about the surge that destroyed countless homes, businesses, and roads along our shoreline.

Glad that New York City escaped severe damage but why not mention areas that did experience severe damage?

Connecticut is covered by 3 National Weather Service offices. One in Albany, one near Boston, and one near Long Island. It’s easy to be forgotten here on the outskirts of the 3 service areas. It looks like even the NHC forgot about us too.

The National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts does a nice job including us in emails and communications. I can’t even remember the last time I heard from the other offices.

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73 Years Ago Today We Had “Our Katrina”

It’s been 73 years since a “major” hurricane has hit Connecticut. The September 21, 1938 hurricane was arguably New England’s greatest natural disaster of the 20th century and to this day remains the benchmark for modern New England hurricanes.

Since 1938 we’ve seen our fair share of hurricanes. Hurricane Carol produced category 2 conditions in the state. 1944, Donna, Gloria, and Bob produced category 1 conditions in portions of the state. None have risen to the level of ’38.

What made the ’38 hurricane so powerful is that as the storm was rocketing north (at nearly 60 mph) the jet stream was helping to enhance the storm’s power. While many storms weaken at this latitude the 1938 storm was holding steady. The tropical system was being fueled by extratropical processes which lead to a monster in our own backyard.

The hurricane made landfall in New Haven with a pressure of 946mb. The sustained wind in some parts of the Connecticut shoreline reached 115 m.p.h. There were higher gusts. Compare that to Gloria’s 75 m.p.h. sustained winds or Irene’s 50 m.p.h. sustained winds and you can see what made the ’38 storm so remarkable.

In the past week we’ve heard from utility company executives talk about what a extraordinary storm Irene was. I don’t think Irene was extraordinary at all. The duration of damaging wind gusts and the heavy rain made the damage worse than you’d expect from other 50 m.p.h. tropical storms but let’s be real here. The damage from Irene was not even a tiny fraction of what a major hurricane can do.

Irene’s 5 foot storm surge came at the worst possible time – during an astronomically high tide. How would we be prepared for a 15 foot storm surge like we had in ’38 (and during Carol, for that matter in southeast Connecticut)? Are we?

The 1938 hurricane was exceptional but it wasn’t unprecedented. There are some indications that the 1635 Great Colonial Hurricane was even stronger with a pressure around 938 mb!

When the utility companies testified about their storm response in front of the legislature earlier this week the president and COO of CL&P mentioned that Irene was about the size of Katrina when it made landfall in Connecticut.ย Yes, the official radius of gale force winds was similar, but we had about 6 hours of marginal tropical storm conditions in Connecticut from Irene. Winds never even approached hurricane force.

If the government, utilities, or citizens think that there is any appropriate comparison between Katrina and Irene they’re truly not prepared for a major hurricane. Hell, they’re not prepared for a category 1 hurricane! 1938 was our Katrina. Irene was barely a blip on the historical radar. I am truly concerned that making Irene out to be some extraordinary freak set of circumstances that crippled the power grid means we aren’t even close to prepared for the day the 1938 hurricane returns. It will.

Irene brought down a couple trees in many neighborhoods. 1938 flattened whole forests. The Guilford Green lost 2 trees during Irene. In ’38 it lost 80 percent of them. The trees still have their leaves this year but after ’38 most trees in the state were completely stripped bare.

If a tropical storm can knock out power for 9 days and destroys dozens of beachfront homes I can only imagine what a major hurricane like 1938 would do.

Comparing Irene and Lee to Connie and Diane

Here in Connecticut many have made the comparison between the flooding after Irene and Lee in 2011 to the flooding following Connie and Diane in 1955. Both flooding events came following 2 back-to-back tropical systems. The similarities, however, stop there.

Besides the 1938 hurricane, the 1955 flood was arguably the greatest natural disaster in Connecticut since colonial times. The amount of rain that fell in August 1955 is so off the charts no event has come anywhere close to it in the last 100 years. The monthly record of 21.87″ at Bradley Airport stands alone as the wettest month on record – the second highest 16.32″ from October 2005 lags far behind.

Hurricane Connie

Hurricane Connie made landfall over the Outer Banks as a minimal hurricane on August 12, 1955. The storm moved slowly up the Chesapeake Bay and dumped 5″-10″ of rain in portions of northwest Connecticut. Connie barely produced any wind in Connecticut as she passed to the west but dropped enough rain to saturate the soil and raise river levels above flood stage.

Hurricane Diane

5 days after Connie, Hurricane Diane made landfall in North Carolina very close to where Connie struck. The storm moved inland and then was picked up by a strong trough diving into the Great lakes. An exceptional band of rain setup over northwest Connecticut and western Massachusetts as the storm passed over Long Island. 10″-20″ of rain was common in many areas. When preceded by Connie’s 5″-10″ of rain Diane’s record 24 hour rainfall was enough to push rivers to levels that hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years.

August 1955 Rain

The all-time 24 hour rain record in Connecticut occurred on August 19th in Burlington with 12.77″ falling. In Westfield, Massachusetts an incredible 1-day total of 19.75″ fell. A close up look at the 8-day rain totals from August 12, 1955 to August 20, 1955 reveal just how exceptional this flood event was.

August 12, 1955 to August 20, 1955 Rain

The 1955 floods destroyed entire neighborhoods, entire downtowns, and entire families. Waterbury, Winsted, Naugatuck, Derby, Ansonia, Farmington, New Hartford, and Putnam are just some of the towns and cities that were changed forever.

With the amount of rain that fell it’s not surprising the 1955 floods set records on the Quinebaug, Farmington, and Naugatuck Rivers.ย  The Army Corps of Engineers built a monstrous system of levees and dams on those rivers to prevent a flood like the ’55 one from happening again. Barring an unforeseen catastrophic failure of the dam and levee system a flood to the level of 1955 will never happen again on those rivers.

There’s no doubt that the combination of Irene and Lee dropped an impressive amount of rain on Connecticut. Some areas picked up 10″-15″ in a 2 week period! The fact that the Irene/Lee rain was spread out over 13 days and not the 8 days of Connie/Diane makes a big difference. The difference between 10″-15″ and 20″-25″ in a river basin is huge as well! From the time the rains from Connie ended there was only about 48 hours until the rains from Diane began.

The flooding from Irene and Lee was significant. The 1955 flood was extraordinary. The August 1955 flood and rainfall totals are to this day unrivaled. Comparing 2011 to 1955 is like comparing your average thunderstorm to an F5 tornado. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

1955 Rain Totals

Barkhamsted – 25.06″

  • Connie – 9.11″
  • Diane – 15.95″

Burlington – 24.65″

  • Connie – 8.73″
  • Diane – 15.92″

Norfolk – 21.81″

  • Connie – 8.93″
  • Diane – 12.88″

Warren – 18.60″

  • Connie – 7.74″
  • Diane – 10.86″

Windsor Locks – 18.42″

  • Connie – 4.02″
  • Diane – 14.40″

Falls Village – 16.83″

  • Connie – 6.75″
  • Diane – 10.08″

Danbury – 14.83″

  • Connie – 8.74″
  • Diane – 6.09″

Hartford – 11.75″

  • Connie – 3.90″
  • Diane – 7.85″

Prospect – 10.96″

  • Connie – 3.41″
  • Diane – 7.55″

Middletown – 10.90″

  • Connie – 4.53″
  • Diane – 6.37″

Bridgeport – 8.34″

  • Connie – 5.32″
  • Diane – 3.02″

Irene’s Impact – More Pics

Last week I posted some pictures from NASA’s TERRA satellite that showed some of the sediment that was in the Hudson River following Irene. The USGS posted some awesome images from their Landsat project of remotely sensed data over the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.

USGS Landsat Image of Connecticut River Sediment

You can see the sediment from Connecticut River flooding heading into the Sound and following the current west toward Hammonassett. While in Branford Tuesday I noticed many of the normally lush and well manicured lawns along the Sound had turned yellow because of Irene’s storm surge.

Lawn on Linden Ave. in Branford Turned Yellow by Storm Surge

Compared to what some people on the shore are dealing with this certainly isn’t a big deal but as someone who grew up in that area it’s jarring to see just how far inland the Sound came.

Hurricane Katia will pass harmlessly out to sea his week. It’s still been 26 years since a true hurricane has hit the state.

More Irene Pictures

The playground at Jacobs Beach in Guilford has a little too much sand on it these days. After the storm surge moved inland a tremendous amount of sand came with it. By Sunday afternoon towns were clearing sand off coastal roadways (in some cases feet of sand) while people who live near the water were shoveling sand off their driveways.

Sand Covering Jacobs Beach Playground in Guilford / Courtesy: Kara Rowell

Piles of Sand on Fairfield Beach Rd. in Fairfield

The heavy rain over inland areas also put a tremendous amount of sediment and mud into rivers and eventually into Long Island Sound. On August 30th NASA’s TERRA satellite picked up muddy rivers that appear dark brown. It’s easy to pick out the Hudson River and Connecticut River (along with the smaller tributaries). Notice that as the sediment from the flooded river flowed into Long Island Sound a plume of that sediment emerged from Old Saybrook and spread west with the current.

Courtesy: NASA Terra Satellite/MODIS