Hurricane Sandy and the Great White Hurricane of 1888

Hurricane Sandy–the ‘Frankenstorm’–is hurtling towards the northeast coast as I write this. I’ve been listening to reports from Rockaway Beach, Asbury Park and downtown Manhattan on the radio. The storm is enormous–500 miles wide–and dangerous–threatening tens of millions of people and untold billions in property. Harbors have closed and vessels are steaming as quickly as possible to the relative safety of open water. (Well, all except this cargo vessel.) There has already been an unconfirmed report of a ship foundering at sea–the 180-foot, three-masted ship H.M.S. Bounty. According to this gCaptain report, the crew of 16 abandoned the vessel. The Coast Guard arrived on the scene this morning, saving 14. Two remain missing.

Sandy bears a close resemblance to another massive “superstorm”–the Great White Hurricane of 1888. Like Sandy, the Great White Hurricane was a massive storm, the result of two major weather systems coming together. It also targeted the densely populated northeast corridor. The blizzard shut down every city and town between Washington D.C., and the Canadian border, causing at least $20 million in damage (a substantial sum in 1888). Hundreds of vessels wrecked (for more see this earlier post).

The Great White Hurricane served as a wake-up call for major cities–transportation came to a halt, communication went down, thousands went without food or heat for days. They were modern cities without modern infrastructure. In the wake of the storm electric and telegraph wires went underground. Boston and New York broke ground on the nation’s first subway systems. The United States Weather Bureau (the forerunner to the National Weather Service that’s been giving us our Sandy updates) was formed in 1891 to improve national weather forecasting.

Sandy will cause extensive damage and hardship. Hopefully it will not be in vain. Our country needs to have a serious conversation about preparing for sea-level rise and global climate change. It took the Great White Hurricane to bring the northeast into the 20th century. Will Sandy bring it into the 21st?

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Filed under Along the Coast, Wrecks in the News

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