Tuesday, November 5, 2013

100 years ago: A November hurricane on the Great Lakes

If you've lived in the Great Lakes area, you're aware of the fury that can develop on the lakes in November.

Even if you've never lived there, you might remember Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a decades-ago hit about the sinking of the ore carrier during a violent storm in November 1975.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of a storm generally considered to be the worst ever on the Great Lakes.

It was called "Freshwater Fury" or the "White Hurricane," although the latter title was used by some people to describe an intense blizzard that hit lakes Erie and Ontario in late January 1978.

Anyways, the 1913 storm left more than 250 people dead, sank 19 ships, and caused nearly $5 million damage. That's in 1913 dollars. In today's money, that would have been about $120 million.

Like a number of the other big Great Lakes gales in November, the 1913 storm was the product of two low pressure systems. One moved eastward from the Great Plains, and another apparently formed in the Southeast and drifted northward. I've seen several accounts of a "lull" in the storm, and I wonder if that happened when the Great Plains low pressure system -- which was very strong -- merged with the Southeast low.

At any rate, the storm moved into the Lake Superior area on Friday, Nov. 7. The U.S. Weather Bureau's forecast system wasn't great at the time, and the storm caught people by surprise. Winds had been expected to be 50 mph but exceeded 74 mph. The next day, winds were sustained at 60 mph in Duluth, Minn.

The storm's quiet period came later on Nov. 8, but by midday on Sunday, Nov. 9, the "Freshwater Fury" was at its strongest.  Storm accounts seem to indicate the worst conditions were on Lake Huron. Its north-south alignment, along with the vicious northerly winds, allowed huge waves to form and batter the southern shore.

Farther to the east, winds gusted to 80 mph in Cleveland and Buffalo. By late on the day Nov. 9, sustained winds of 70 mph with gusts to 90 mph were common in all but the eastern-most lake, Ontario.

As the storm pushed northeast into Ontario on Nov. 10 and 11, it dragged much colder air into the lake-effect areas of Lake Erie, from Cleveland up to Buffalo. More than 2 feet of snow fell in Cleveland, with drifts of 7 or 8 feet reported. In addition, the strong winds had knocked down power poles across the area, so many people had to deal with very deep snow and no electricity.

Tens of thousands of customers were without power for a week in parts of Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. There was heavy damage along the shore of Lake Michigan, in Chicago and Milwaukee.

The damage to shipping was heavy. There are photos of a capsized freighter, the Charles S. Price, floating in Lake Huron. Twenty-eight sailors died in that wreck. There also were 28 deaths aboard the John A. McGean and the Isaac M. Scott. Wrecks from the 1913 storm litter the bottom of the Great Lakes, and one wreck, the Henry B. Smith, was discovered at the bottom of Lake Superior five months ago.

By the way, the largest ship ever to sink in the Great Lakes was the Edmund Fitzgerald, at a length of 729 feet. It went down in 70 mph winds and 40-foot waves at the eastern end of Lake Superior.


Bob Davis said...

Why the hell are you in Charlotte talking about this. Go home and write this crap!

Great Lakes Native said...

The Great Lakes are great. They are so great, they are newsworthy from Alaska to Miami to Maine to San Diego. Do not be mean to Steve, or anyone when the Great Lakes are mentioned. Do you not know what is "great?"

Great Lakes Native said...

The lakes in the Charlotte area are not really called great; they are regular, unless you count Lake Norman. Hardly any lakes anywhere can come close to the most greatest ever lakes called the Great Lakes.