The Worst Hurricanes In Cape Cod History

When Did We Suffer The Most?

We've had sort of a slow summer for hurricanes. It's not like New England gets them very often, and we certainly are not a hotspot... but we at least get Threatened with one now and then. This summer? Nada.

There are good, valid, known reasons for this as-it-stands-now lack of tropical action. For one, we have seen tons of Sahara Desert dust being blown offshore. They've had a dry summer over there, and the Sahara dust interferes with water heating and surface-to-air evaporation... both of which are crucial to hurricane formation

We've also had a gorgeous summer. We get these summers because a big area of high pressure sets up near us. High pressure circulates clockwise. Low pressure circulates counter-clockwise. When they meet, the low pressure system gets sheared. When that happens, it's pretty much all she wrote for Tropical Storm Whoever.

So, to summarize, you've had a dry summer in Africa, and any tropical waves which come off the Dark Continent that aren't smothered by dust are then stopped by shear. Hence, the lack of hurricane reporting going on in these parts.

Conditions do look favorable for development in the eastern Atlantic in the upcoming weeks, so things could yet pick up. However, we are not here today to talk about the future... we're here to talk about the past.

New England, despite not being Florida or Louisiana, does have an impressive hurricane history. We've been hit by some doozies. Cape Cod, which is sort of the chin of New England, usually bears the brunt of our hurricanes, although the body shot that is a Connecticut landfall also has an impressive history.

Since we're a Cape Cod news site, we'll use Cape impact as the deal-breaker when assembling this list of storms. We'll use impact on population as well, so many pre-Columbian monster storms will miss the list despite their power still being apparent 1000 years after the fact.

Conversely, many storms which are merely overgrown nor'easters will appear on this list merely because Cape Cod had more people living there when ranked Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011 than when the meteorologically similar but unranked 1683 tropical storm arrived and disturbed 400 Pilgrims.

So, let's review some history, and set a benchmark for historic storms. If I have to re-write this list soon, you'll most likely have lost your roof.

We'll go by date, rather than ranking. If I skip your favorite storm, I guess it just wasn't a True Player.


Recent innovations allow researchers to guess when big storms hit before recorded history.

I've seen them doing it at the Great Salt Marsh in Duxbury. They drill for soil samples, get a ten foot tube full of soil, then analyze layers of mud to see when some sand unexpectedly appears over marsh mud. This sand could only be put there by a storm big enough to wash beach sand over the dunes and into the marsh. Once they find sand, they do some Science/Math stuff (it is unbecoming to the sportswriter, all this Book Learning that you speak of...), and can determine when big hurricanes struck the area.

Thusly, we know that major storms hit the region in roughly 1100 AD, 1300 AD, and 1450 AD. Given the fact that recorded history shows dozens of hurricanes each century, we can assume that these storms really stood out, and were probably Katrina-style events.

I'm not sure if the soil method is valid for pre-Ice Age storms, but it is handy for any time post-Jesus... and, to be fair, if your hurricane research really needs to pre-date the Big Man, this column is probably several PhD's beneath you. I'm generally the Sports Editor here.

The Great Colonial Hurricane

1635 was a good year to be a Pilgrim, but August 25th of 1635 was a very bad day to be one. On this day, with absolutely no warning at all, what scientists say was a Category 3 hurricane dropped out of the skies onto the early Pilgrims and their Wampanoag friends.

Scientists and historians can actually piece together a pretty good idea of what this storm was like by primary source documents and computer storm surge models. These things speak of a 15 foot storm surge, a mile-wide swath of trees blown down, dozens of drowned Wampanoags, 125 mph winds and a reading of 27.7 inches on John Alden's barometer.

It was "the most intense hurricane in New England history" and would have done "a bazillion" dollars damage in 2013 dollars on 2013 Massachusetts. The first quote is from Brian Jarvenin, a National Hurricane Center expert and a noted authority in the field, and the latter one is from Stephen Bowden, about whom such things are not said.

A few funny things to ponder with this storm...

- The Pilgrims left Europe- where storms like this don't happen- in 1620. It is fairly safe to say that they saw a few nor'easters before 1635, but nothing like the GCH. I grew up in northern France, with a similar climate to the Dutch/English one they were used to... this storm must have seemed like the wrath of God.

One of my neighbors on Duxbury Beach had a nanny from the Gold Coast of Australia, where they also don't get things like hurricanes and blizzards. She was home alone when the April Fool's blizzard struck Massachusetts, and she was in a panic when I spoke to her on the phone.

It was a very English sort of panic, though... "When do the send the Army for us? And who makes all of this snow go away?"

- Duxbury was founded in 1637, by Myles Standish. Where he settled would be very much uphill from the Plymouth colony. Duxbury also has a very effective barrier beach. I never really put together the 1637 founding date with the 1635 hurricane. Myles probably lost his house in the GCH, and rebuilt on higher ground.

It's a shame that I found this out, because I liked the previous idea I held on Duxbury's founding... that Duxbury, which- depending on how you view Weymouth and Bourne- was America's first suburb, was founded by a guy for whom 1637 Plymouth had gotten just a little bit too crowded.... to the point where he decided to hack his own town out of the forest.

- If the Pilgrims had a National Hurricane Center and named each hurricane, this would have been named something like "Mercy" or "Prudence" or "Goody." "Headeth for yonder hills, 'ere cometh Hurricane Faith."

1778 Hurricane Season

Two storms of note struck Cape Cod during this Summer Of War.

The first storm hit in August as a weakening hurricane, and is notable only for cancelling a Revolutionary War naval battle between France and England off Rhode Island. Had the Brisith won that battle, it would have only been a short march and a bit of shooting before they conquered Cape Cod.

Since, before the Canal, there was only one way to Boston from the southern colonies, British possession of Cape Cod would have essentially taken Boston out of the war effort. With the British holding both New York and Canada as well, it would have taken New England out of the war... and we'd probably be Old England still.

Another storm- possibly a nor'easter, possibly not- struck on November 1st. This direct-hit Cape Cod, and killed 70 people. 23 of those dead were British sailors from the HMS Somerset III, which ran aground off Cape Cod. This is generally known as the 1778 New England Hurricane.

October 17th, 1782

This mild one is listed only because it was a rare Snow Hurricane, although it probably rained on Cape Cod. We'd have been too close to the warm creamy center for any snow.

"Snow hurricane" makes me think "nor'easter," as a hurricane is more of a heat engine. Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean waters, while nor'easters draw theirs from areas of contrasting temperatures.

New England isn't that big, and if it's cold enough to snow in one part while warm enough for a hurricane-strength ocean storm not too far away, that sounds like contrasting temperatures.

Either way... Snow Hurricanes make the list, even if they were nor'easters.

The Storm of October 1804

This monster was/is also known as The New England Hurricane of 1804.

This was the second Snow Hurricane on the list, but it was definitely not a nor'easter. It left a path of destruction from Virginia (descrbed in one ship's log as "a dreadful squall") up to here. Experts estimate it as a Category 3, which is Bob-sized. Top winds were 115 mph.
It dropped 3 feet of snow on Massachusetts, and was the first Snow Hurricane to gain national attention.

Cape Cod most definitely got rain from this. Salem, much further than the Cape from the storm's warm center, is recorded as getting 7 inches of rain.

If you knew that a storm blew the steeple off the Old North Church in Boston, now you know which one did it.... the New England Hurricane of 1804.

The Great September Gale of 1815

This storm was the worst to hit New England since that Pilgrim Hurricane 180 years before.

This is considered to be one of the 5 worst hurricanes to hit New England. Winds reached 135 mph, and Providence had a 17 foot storm surge.


The October Gale of 1841

This one, which actually passed off-Cape enough that it snowed in Connecticut, exacted a high cost on the coast.

81 fishermen were lost, as the storm wrecked the Georges Bank fishing fleet. It is also notable for destroying salt works on Cape Cod... an event which led to a profound economic slump for the region. Cape Cod was highly dependent on salt, and, when the British attacked Wareham during the War of 1812, the first thing they set on fire was Wareham's salt works.

Note that the word "hurricane" had not entered into common American English at the time (it's either a Carib word Juaracan, who is their storm god... or it's the Mayan creator god, Huracan), hence the use of the word "Gale" so often.

October, 1849

A late season storm hits Massachusetts, killing 143 people. It is the second deadliest hurricane to ever hit New England.

The Saxby Gale

This storm hit in October 1869, and was the last notable storm for some time.

It was a category 2 storm, and- amazingly- wasn't even the biggest storm of the year.

A category 3 storm struck SE Massachusetts in September 1869. This, and the cooler-named Saxby Gale, would have killed more people if SE Massachusetts at the time wasn't a series of small, far-apart farms.

After those hit, we enter into a down period. We still get storms, and some even come ashore as hurricanes (several in 1870s, 80s, and 90s) but nothing really makes big news for 50 years.

Even then, we only get a pair of storms that hammer Buzzards Bay in 1904 and 1916. Then, things get hectic.

August 1924

This was a category 2 or 3 storm, and the worst thing to hit Massachusetts since the Saxby Gale. It cut a line from New Bedford to Plymouth, through sparsely-populated areas.

The old-timers will tell you that damage from this storm to the Cape and Islands was worse than the damage inflicted in 1938. It was followed by another hurricane which killed an impressive 84 Vermonters in 1927.

Storms really do need names, because if this were Hurricane Vito or something, you'd have heard of it.

The Long Island Express

This is the biggest of them all. The 1635 hurricane was more intense, but it struck probably 400 people. This storm struck during September of 1938.

It started near the Cape Verde Islands, gained strength, and slammed into Long Island with 125 mph winds. SE Massachusetts, on the deadly northeast side of the storm, suffered terrific damage. If you ever hear about Blue Hills getting a hurricane-record 186 mph wind gust (and probably worse, as a different, stronger gust broke their anemometer), that was from this storm.

This storm owns the deaths record, at 600-800. The storm hit Cape Cod with 18-25 foot tides. Falmouth and Bourne were under 8 feet of water. New Bedford lost about 70% of their fishing fleet. The fire station in Buzzards Bay was under 5 feet of water, and that's inland a fair bit.
One old-timer I know said that he saw a house wash down the Canal and finally get caught up on the Bourne Bridge. When they got out to it, it was full of water. Inside, they found a mother and her two daughters... dead. They also found the body of a guy who swam out to try to rescue them. All of them perished while trying to claw through the roof of the rapidly-flooding house with their bare hands.

Between the Saxby Gale and this storm, the USA had gained many immigrants from Europe. These people, like the Pilgrims who I mentioned earlier, had no idea how storms get. Only the oldest of old-timers remembered the Saxby Gale, and the 1924 storm wasn't all over the Internet or anything, seeing as Al Gore hadn't invented it yet.

Throw in some piddle-poor forecasting (a rookie at the National Weather Forecast center actually called the storm and the New England landfall, but was overruled by his superiors, who issued gale warnings and mentioned nothing at all of a killer hurricane flying up at New England), and people died by the bushel-friggin'-basket.

Damages were around $5 billion in 2013 money. 35% of New England's trees died. 25000 cars, 50000 homes, and 25000 telephone/electric poles were destroyed by the storm. Power was out for 2 weeks after the storm, and it was out for months in isolated places.

Things stayed active after this storm, which was also known as the Great New England Hurricane.

The Great Atlantic Hurricane

1944 was a bad year to be at sea. If some U-Boat didn't kill you, the Great Atlantic Hurricane would.

This storm was a monster, in both size and intensity. As such, it was given that name in the title by the NHC (then the Miami Hurricane Warning Office). Thusly, it was the first storm to get a name.

Peaking at 145 mph, it came ashore in Long Island and Rhode Island as a category 2 storm. It is famous in these parts for sinking the lightship LV Vineyard Sound, killing all 12 men on board.

Hurricane Carol

This is the 1954 Carol, not the 1953 Carol. If a named storm wasn't too bad, they kept the old name in circulation, so you'd get 2 or 3 Carols in a row if they all stayed out at sea. This one didn't.

Carol made landfall in Saybrook, CT as a category 3 storm. This makes Carol one of the Big 5... storms which were Category 3 or greater upon their New England landfall. The others were 1635, 1815, 1938, and and either, depending on which stats you believe, 1869 or Hurricane Bob.

Carol was the first storm where Cape Cod was evacuated, with 20,000 people bugging out. 1500 Wareham residents were left homeless, and a 20 foot storm tide inundated New Bedford. 65 people died, and about 1000 were injured. 1/3 of all New England lost power.
2 weeks later, Hurricane Edna arrived, doing even more damage. Edna passed right over Cape Cod as a Category 2, and killed 28 people.

After these storms, you started seeing seawalls go up along the Massachusetts shoreline. The seawall in front of my house in Duxbuy has "Tony, 9/54" carved into it. This was also the storm which made them try dumping silver iodide into hurricanes to cool and kill them, something called Operation Stormfury.

Carol was the first Atlantic hurricane name to be retired.

Hurricane Donna

This 1960 storm put a 140 mph wind gust onto Blue Hills, a 135 mph gust on Block Island, and a partially shaded 110 mph gust at New Bedford airport. Donna, a Cape Verdean storm, reached a peak of 160 mph while moving across the Atlantic towards us.

This was sort of the Storm before the Calm, as about 25-30 years passed before another major hurricane hammered Cape Cod. Gloria skimmed us in the 1980s, Belle drew a lot of attention in 1976, and Carrie put 90 mph winds on Plymouth in 1972, but Cape Cod was essentially off the hook until 1990.

Hurricane Bob

This gale is the benchmark that modern Cape Codders use when referencing storms. Bob whupped up on Cape Cod like we owed him money and were talking about his mother concurrently. Bob came in August, 1991.

The head of Buzzards Bay (Onset, Buzzards Bay, Cataumet, etc...) bore the brunt of this storm. Most of these areas were under 5-10 feet of water. The Massachusetts Maritime Academyy in Buzzards Bay recorded a 120 mph wind gust. Private anemometers in Falmouth recorded unofficial 150 mph gusts, and a fishing boat off Cuttyhunk reported a 162 mph gust.

Cape Cod evacuated, and an 11 mile backup gridlocked the Sagamoe Bridge. It was even worse in Maine, where an evacuating President Bush closed Route 95 so he could have direct access to the Air Force base he was bugging out of Kennebunkport to. Thousands of evacuees were delayed.

The storm hit during the height of Tourist Season, during yet another Bush-led recession. Cape Cod essentially shut down until the summer of 1992, and they were still resolving issues from it when I moved here in 2005.

500,000 people were left without power, including all of Cape Cod. Many places on Cape Cod were just getting it back by October, just in time to watch Perfect Storm highlights.


The Halloween Gale

I lived in Duxbury in 1991, and nothing happened to us at all during Bob... the water didn't even reach the seawall.

We paid for it in October, though.

A fading hurricane merged with a low pressure system to form a new hurricane. The fading one was Grace, the new one was eventually named Henri.
Henri actually wasn't named at first, and has only gained a title after the fact. The NHC felt that naming Henri would create a panic. Henri later inspired a novel and a George Clooney/Marky Mark film about some doomed fishermen.

Where Bob hammered south-facing beaches, Henri (aka the Halloween Gale, the No Name Storm, or/and the Perfect Storm, although locals use "Halloween Gale" or "No Name Storm" among each other, and only use "Perfect Storm" when talking to tourists) gave it to the eastern ones. My house in Duxbury was destroyed by this storm, which hung around for 6-8 tides.

This, and the more nor'easterish Blizzard of '78, were the ones where Boston TV weathermen acquired their reputation for uselessness. I can recall watching Dick Albert say "Hurricane Grace, way offshore, not an issue for us, may get windy at the coast for a while," about 16 hours before I was trapped in my house on some Andrea Gail sh*t.

After this series of beatings, we again entered another dormant stage where the best we could do were nor'easters and remnant storms from other states. We're still sort of in that dormant state, although the fringe storms are hitting us more frequently now.

Hurricane Earl

New England was fearing the worst in 2010 as Hurricane Earl made his way towards us. All indications pointed to another Bob. I think I wrote 20 articles chronicling Earl's approach. When I went to bed, Earl was heading straight towards us. By the time I woke up, he had veered out to sea. You could golf that day.

Earl did kick up tropical storm winds, and much of Cape Cod lost power to a not-that-bad storm. Due to inefficient asset allocation by NSTAR, power was out for more than a week in some spots.

Hurricane Irene

Much like Earl, 2011's Irene was a wimp that staggered no one but NSTAR. Power was out for almost 2 weeks for some people.

Hurricane Sandy

2012's heavy hitter whaled on Noo Yawk, but it wasn't that bad up here. More damage was done by a Wareham microburst a week later than was done during Sandy, and a series of blizzards and nor'easters also did greater damage than Sandy. Some Cape Codders lost power, but it was nothing like the power loss during the 2013 blizzard.


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