Delaware is small target during hurricane season

DOVER — Recently, the Washington Post had an interesting blog post headlined, “Why a single hurricane has not come ashore in Virginia, Maryland or Delaware since 1851.”

The Capital Weather Gang blog said, “If you stare at a map of where hurricanes have made landfall in the United States since 1851, you’ll notice an enormous void over the Mid-Atlantic coast. Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have never been directly struck. Southern New Jersey has only been hit once.

“Is there a magical shield protecting the beaches where many Washingtonians vacation and have second homes? Will a hurricane ever directly strike these shores?”

They summed up our saving grace simply: Delmarva is “tucked in.”

“The Delmarva area is hard for hurricanes to hit both geographically and meteorologically,” said Brian McNoldy, Capital Weather Gang’s tropical weather expert. “It’s a concave part of the coastline and storms that travel that far north are typically curving to the north or northeast. If the Delmarva Peninsula ‘stuck out’ east of Cape Hatteras, the hurricane landfall map would look quite different there.”

Kelvin Ramsey, a geologist at the Delaware Geological Survey at the University of Delaware, said it has a great deal to do with Delaware being “a small target,” he said.

“Hurricanes in this part of the world tend not to go due west and that’s really the only way hurricane would make landfall in Delaware,” Dr. Ramsey said. “There would have to be some weird thing of it coming up the coast, there would be a high pressure system to the north that blocks the storm and it turns it to the west. That is exceptionally rare.”

***

This editor was reminded of the blog a few days ago when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its hurricane prediction report. NOAA said it was now predicting a higher likelihood (60 percent chance, revised from the 45 percent prediction in May) of an above-normal season. And, it said this year could be extremely active, the most active since 2010.

There may be 14 to 19 named storms, NOAA said. But it is sticking with the five to nine hurricanes prediction made in May.

“We’re now entering the peak of the season when the bulk of the storms usually form,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “The wind and air patterns in the area of the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean where many storms develop are very conducive to an above-normal season.”

An average Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.

***

The National Hurricane Center database says Delaware has twice had hurricane conditions since 1851.

Dr. Ramsey said the data used is largely based on winds, but added that Delaware has probably had more. “It’s probably better to say a few, rather than to quantify,” he said.

“We’ve had some close calls,” Dr. Ramsey said.

Two Category 1 storms the National Weather Service cites are the “Gale of 1878” and the “Vagabond Hurricane” of 1903.

That’s not to say that Delaware has not felt the impacts of hurricanes raging up the coast with heavy rain, wind and flooding. Longtime Delawareans reflect on Hazel, Agnes, Floyd, and most recently Sandy.

The Capital Weather Gang quickly dismissed the idea that Delmarva is immune from a future direct hit.

“Given the right configuration of weather systems, a hurricane could be steered straight into the Delmarva coast,” the blog said. “While not technically a hurricane at landfall, Hurricane Sandy — which roared ashore near Atlantic City, came awfully close to striking Delmarva.”

***

The storm of October 1878 is one of the most fascinating in Delaware history.

“For the northern half of Delaware, it is the hurricane of record, the most impactful hurricane,” said Dr. Ramsey.

Mr. Ramsey said an article he read about the “great tidal wave of Delaware” piqued his curiosity and started studying the storm years ago.

“Lo and behold, it was a hurricane,” he said. “The middle and upper part of Delaware Bay rose quickly. At Pea Patch Island, the tide rose six feet in an hour or two. If you were out on the marsh, it would have looked like a tidal wave coming in.”

Winds were pushing water up into the funnel shape of the Delaware Bay and it just started piling up, he said.

Back in 2002, Dr. Ramsey and Marijke J. Reilly authored a publication — “The Hurricane of October 21-24, 1878”— that summed up the devastation.

“The wind’s strength was great enough to unroof houses, knock down church steeples, uproot trees, and in some places, destroy buildings,” the report said.

The Wilmington Every Evening, sourced for the report, described the storm as “blowing great guns” when it arrived in Lewes about 2 a.m.

The tide broke through Cape Henlopen south of the lighthouse and came rushing in, said the report, and the beach in front of Lewes was under 7 feet of water.

There was a wave surge as high as 5 to 8 feet above high tide and caused miles of flooding inland and transformed freshwater areas into tidal streams and created new inlets.

There were 100 fatalities, many from lives lost in shipwrecks. Damage estimates, in 1878 dollars, may have topped $10 million.

“That was the days of the sailing vessels,” said Dr. Ramsey. “There were all these little fishing boats and oyster boats. Just think of all of the people that were making their living off the water in Delaware Bay.”

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.