A brief history of major storms in New Jersey

Past activity shows highs and lows on East Coast

UNION COUNTY — As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers what to do about flood control in the Rahway River Basin, those living adjacent to the Rahway River and Arthur Kill wonder not if another major storm will flood their homes, but when.

Flood control in towns along the Rahway River basin that suffered an estimated $100 million in damages to homes and businesses, is critical. Not knowing when another storm will hit continues to keep residents of towns like Cranford, Rahway and Springfield awake at night wondering when the next major storm will force them to evacuate their homes.

It is the unknown that looms for many of those affected by flooding woes. However, the answer to when a major storm might hit this area might lay in the history of major storms that hit the east coast.

According to ScienceDaily.com and the Insurance Journal, super storms like Sandy are nothing new to New Jersey. In fact, according to Michael H. Brown, a meteorologist who also investigated the history of major east coast storms, it’s a matter of flipping a coin.

“Worst case, it’s a category 2 or above and it’s eye goes up the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey,” said Brown in a report he penned on the subject, noting that an 1893 hurricane that hit the area was so intense it caused an island off Brooklyn to literally disappear.

Science Daily believes the east coast is in an “active phase,” or in a new hurricane era, and so does Brown, who pointed out the last intense episode of hurricanes spanned from 1930 to 1969, or 39 years.

Science Daily said the east coast generally gets hit with a major hurricane every seventy or eighty years. Before Superstorm Sandy, the last major storm to hit was in 1938.

Brown agreed, noting in his missives on the subject that “active cycles are just that, full of storms.”
For example, from 1940 to 1949 there were 23 strikes on the east coast by hurricanes, as opposed to only 12 during a “quiet cycle.”
In 1969, the year category 5 Hurricane Camille hit, there were 17 tropical storms, as opposed to four in the years when there was a quiet phase.

When the active phase returned in 1995, it started with a run of tropical storms more than twice that of comparable periods in the 1970s. At one point that year, there were four tropical storms in the Atlantic at the same time, positioning themselves like planes landing at an airport, Brown said.

With each degree of warmth, the number of hurricanes that make landfall, one meteorologist said, increases by a third. This was immediately apparent in the four storms that made landfall in 1999, where normally one or two would have been expected.

Size does matter when it comes to storms. While hurricanes like Andrew in 1992 can be small, storms like Floyd in 1999 ballooned across a span of ocean the size of Texas, said Science Daily. Another called Mitch also was very large and when looking at historical storms there have been typhoons that sent gale-force winds out 600 miles. When Floyd hit, for instance, it ended up causing flooding from Florida to upstate New York.

The melding of hurricanes often strengthen storms that stray beyond the tropics, as when a northbound storm named Grace interacted with the perfect Halloween storm in 1991. In 1954, for instance, Hurricane Hazel first struck the Carolinas as a category 4 hurricane, and then merged with a low-pressure center to become a monstrous extra-tropical system that devastated Toronto.

This is another example of the type of super system that gave Sandy its nickname.

That brings us to the key and unnerving issue of intensity. Although powerful hurricanes can come during quiet times as with Hurricane Gilbert in 1979 and Andrew in 1992, they are more likely in an active cycle according to the National Weather Service. The more storms that occur, the more likely one will intensify.

According to the National Hurricane Center, new technology is revealing that in the past wind speeds were understated by as much as 20 percent, which Brown said gauged at speeds taken with instruments today would blast at “breathtaking levels.”

Even at the low end of projections, the strongest storms, meteorologists said, would have sustained winds out inthe ocean of 230 to 250 miles per hour. Any gusts beyond that, would lead to “remarkable storm surges,” weather experts indicated.

As it is, a category 5 hurricane is expected to hurl more than 18 feet of water, but there are records that show surges twice that height. For example, an 1899 storm in Australia had a surge of 42 feet and experts believe that has happened in Florida.

With each degree of warming, the National Weather Center indicated, the hurricane season is extended 20 days and that could substantially increase range. A category 3 hurricane making landfall halfway up the New Jersey coast would cause a surge of up to 30 feet in New York Harbor and send fierce winds slashing directly at skyscrapers, meteorologists claim.

Will it happen? Brown said weather is not an exact science and only the future will determine if past cycles were an indication of what is to come.