Virginia author Rick Schwartz says the Middle Atlantic region is just about due for another major hurricane, if past trends hold true.
The longest interval between giant, destructive, inland hurricanes in this area is 58 years. “We are now at 58 years,” he told an audience at the Calvert County Historical Society last week.
Schwartz is the author of “Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States: From Jamestown to the Present,” which was published in 2007.
“I don’t know how we’re going to deal with 100 mph gusts if we get them,” he said, when a garden-variety thunderstorm causes so much havoc in the region when the power goes out.
Hurricane Hazel in October 1954 was the last to bring hurricane-force winds to large inland sections of the East Coast, Schwartz said. Before that hurricanes damaged the region in 1896, 1878, 1821, 1775, 1769, 1724 and 1667, he said.
“Hurricane history is repetitive,” he said.
The first major recorded hurricane in the colonial United States hit on Sept. 6, 1667, where William Berkeley, Virginia governor, wrote, “A mighty wind … destroyed four-fifths of [our] tobacco and corn and blew down in two hours fifteen thousand houses in Virginia and Maryland.”
The Maryland colony was only 33 years old at the time.
The Maryland Gazette in Annapolis on Sept. 14, 1769, noted a hurricane that struck on Sept. 8. “We had the most violent storm of wind and rain, from the northeast, ever known in the memory of the oldest inhabitant. In the lower parts of this province, at a very moderate calculation, upwards of 100 tobacco houses have been blown down, besides other buildings, an incredible quantity of corn broken down, the blades ripped off and blown away.
“Fine crops of tobacco growing, of which there are now remains some stalks. A great number of mills broke down, and carried away by the current,” the paper wrote.
On Oct. 23, 1878, a hurrricane struck Maryland, late in the season. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 each year. That storm took 16 lives in the Chesapeake Bay off Point No Point.
Schwartz said the steamer Express was making its regular run from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., when it got caught in the storm. Wind gusts reached 100 mph on the bay with waves of 15 to 20 feet. The steamer was torn to bits by the winds and the waves. The ship’s wreckage washed up on the Eastern Shore.
A survivor, F.J. Stone, wrote the St. Mary’s Beacon on Nov. 9, 1878. He put no blame on the ship’s captain or crew. “None but an eyewitness could comprehend and appreciate the terrific and terrible force of this to me unprecedented hurricane,” he said.
The Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of Aug. 23, 1933, killed at least 22 Marylanders according to newspaper reports of the time. It was not what Schwartz called an inland hurricane, but a coastal hurricane.
That hurricane made landfall 40 miles south of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, he said, and the gale wrecked waterfront resorts, steamboat wharves and bridges to islands. It led to the decline of the watermen economy on the bay. “This coincided with the Great Depression,” he said. “It would never be the same.”
The bridge to St. George Island, which was built in 1921, was only a few feet above the channel and was washed away. Three homes on the island were destroyed and some 1,500 chickens were drowned, the Associated Press reported.
St. Mary’s County took $500,000 in losses in that 1933 storm, The Enterprise reported. With a four-foot storm surge, cottages at Scotland Beach and the Bushwood Wharf were washed away.
The damage to the state’s tobacco crop was $2 million at the time.
The next major inland hurricane to strike was Hazel on Oct. 15, 1954. Starting in 1953, Atlantic hurricanes were named by the National Hurricane Center. At first the tropical systems were named after women. Starting in 1979, men’s names were added.
The bridge to St. George Island and other islands on the Eastern Shore were once again washed away. Afterward the Maryland Roads Commission got wise, Schwartz said and built “camelback” bridges that rise up and over the water.
The St. Mary’s Beacon reported Patuxent River Naval Air Station measured a wind gust of 112 mph in the 1954 storm. St. Mary’s County received $1.7 million in damage mainly done to the tobacco crop and 250 tobacco barns were blown down.
Schwartz said Hurricane Isabel in September 2003 and Hurricane Irene last August weren’t strong systems themselves, but caused more damage because the sea level has risen since 1933. More water gives more fuel for hurricanes, he said.
There is only Tropical Storm Nadine in the Atlantic this week, which poses no threat to land, according to the National Hurricane Center.