Friday, August 26, 2011

The Great September Gale of 1815

As we wait for Hurricane Irene to arrive this weekend--the governor has already declared a state of emergency, and the city is preparing to take the unprecedented step of shutting down the entire bus and subway system--let's take a look back at an earlier storm that ravished the area. The most famous hurricane to come ashore in our region is undoubtedly 1938's "Long Island Express," a Category 3 storm that hit on September 31, 1938, wreaking havoc throughout New York and New England.

However, while that hurricane and its aftermath are well documented, an equally strong storm arrived on September 23, 1815, that is now largely forgotten. Known as the "Great September Gale of 1815" (the word hurricane was not yet in popular use), it very likely also a Category 3 storm. The storm originated, as many Atlantic storms do, in the warm waters of the Caribbean, striking the Bahamas before moving northward.

When the storm hit Long Island, it was probably packing 135-mph winds. Though wave heights aren't known, it seems likely that it matched the effect of the 1938 storm, which had a highest recorded wave height of 50 feet. The storm was so strong that it literally rewrote the landscape: before 1815, the Rockaways and Long Beach were connected as one, long barrier island. It was the Great September Gale that rent them asunder, permanently creating the inlet between them.

The worst of the storm's damage came in New England. An 11-foot storm surge rolled up Narragansett Bay, destroying over 500 homes, dozens of ships, and flooding Providence, Rhode Island.

Perhaps the most important after-effect of the gale was to cause Harvard mathematician John Farrar to realize that these types of gales were "moving vortexes," an essential first step toward the modern definition of a hurricane.


Stay safe everyone!




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Read much more about the history of New York in


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