Tuesday 28 November 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 10: Appalachian Storm 1950

I have mentioned major storms in some previous posts about natural disasters and their effects on people and communities. This past weekend marked the anniversary of a severe early winter tempest that devastated many parts of the eastern United States. Most readers of this blog will not remember it but their parents might. It happened right about the time that television was making its way into private homes, so perhaps not as many people would have seen the pictures or newscasts as is the case today.

It also happened at a time when atmospheric CO2 levels were not very high, so storms of this magnitude occurring during this and previous periods could not be blamed on anthropogenic climate change associated with that so-called greenhouse gas. The storm was just one of those big events that came around every once in a while – and always had – when meteorological conditions combined in particular ways.

As described in Wikipedia (and in several other reports), the “Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 was a large extratropical cyclone which moved through the Eastern United States, causing significant winds, heavy rains east of the Appalachians, and blizzard conditions along the western slopes of the mountain chain. Hurricane-force winds, peaking at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) in Concord, New Hampshire and 160 miles per hour (260 km/h) in the New England highlands, disrupted power to 1,000,000 customers during the event. In all, the storm impacted 22 states, killing 353, injuring over 160, and creating US$66.7 million in damage (1950 dollars). At the time, U.S. insurance companies paid more money out to their policy holders for damage resulting from this cyclone than for any other previous storm or hurricane. The cyclone is also one of only twenty-six storms to rank as a Category 5 on the Regional Snowfall Index.”
Surface analysis showing cyclone near time of maximum intensity on 25 November 1950 
(retrieved 20 November 2017 from Wikipedia)

According to authors, Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini, in their books, Northeast Snowstorms, Volumes 1 and 2, the 1950 storm “represents perhaps the greatest combination of extreme atmospheric elements ever seen in the eastern United States. We feel that this storm is the bench mark against which all other major storms of the 20th century could be compared.”

The New England Historical Society documented the event here. See also The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 summarized on the LEX18.com (the Lexington, KY news website) last week.

The 1950 storm was not the first to rampage over the Eastern US in the early winter season. A powerful blizzard slashed across New England on Thanksgiving Day in 1898 – hitting hardest in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts – disrupting transportation and communication, and leaving 20-foot snowdrifts in its wake. It caught many areas unprepared as it followed a warm Indian Summer period. Over 450 people were thought to have been killed. At sea the steamer Portland was overpowered by winds and sunk.

Other not-so-Thanksgiving Day storms:
·         1926 Arkansas tornado
·         1945 Boston nor’easter
·         1971 New York snowfall
·         1982 Hawaii hurricane
·         1988 North Carolina tornado
·         1991 California dust storm
·         1992 Gulf Coast to Eastern Seaboard tornadoes
·         1998 Washing State windstorm

You will find hundreds more if you search for destructive storms on any other day of the year – holiday or not.

History records major storms throughout the centuries of human existence, although it is only in the last few hundred years that the consequences have been set down in print. Prior to that, we have only geological data on which to base their existence and severity. A quick search of the Internet will bring up dozens of examples of extreme storm events in North American and Europe that have occurred almost on a regular basis during the past several centuries.

Most of the deadliest storms we hear about happened in the last 100 years mainly because reporting of such events was more complete. You have to go into historical records – which do not always contain a lot of detail, especially concerning meteorological data – to find out about similar events before the 20th century.

On 26 November 1703 (later to be the US Thanksgiving Day season) the Great Storm struck southern England causing widespread damage from the West Country to London. The maritime fleet was decimated with over 100 shipwrecks – including 13 royal Navy warships – and more than 8,000 seamen drowned.

Areas along the coasts of continents are most susceptible to hurricanes and typhoons that come in from the sea. Coastal towns and cities fare worse than areas further inland when these sorts of storms attack.

Everybody talks about the weather. Farmers, in particular, have been known to agonize over it. For much of mankind’s existence, weather has had a significant impact on survival, controlling agricultural success or the numbers and health of animals hunted or raised as food sources.

Besides the deaths of people in major storm events, there is always significant property damage which can cripple families under unforeseen financial burdens.

Chronicling of major storms falls well within the time period of genealogical studies. The 1950 time frame would not normally be a part of genealogical investigations but it did affect people three or more generations ago. More to the point, it certainly was not the first (nor will it be the last) intense storm to have an impact on communities.

It may be worth family researchers’ time to review the aspects of the environments in which their ancestors lived to see if natural disaster like storms, and associated wind or flood damage had major impacts on lives and livelihoods.