Hurricanes ... and More Hurricanes! (1976 - 2008)

Hurricane-Evacuation-Route-Sign-NHE-9467_300Previous posts I've written about Hurricanes Agnes, Gloria and Sandy have generated some of this blog's highest readership.  And although I have memories of other hurricanes, they aren't rich enough to turn them into full-blown posts.  Instead, I've written a few sentences about ten of them and put them all in this one post. 



BELLE (Aug. 9, 1976)

I experienced this hurricane but didn't realize it until nearly 40 years later when I was doing research for my weather blog (New York City Weather Archive).  On this day in 1976 my older brother and I drove from Pittsburgh to northern New Jersey for a vacation (which included my first time in the Atlantic Ocean, at Belmar, and my first visit to NYC), and when we got onto the NJ Turnpike we were met by sheets of heavy rain.  This was before The Weather Channel, so we were completely oblivious to the fact that hurricane Belle was bearing down on Long Island at the time (it made landfall there shortly after midnight).  It wasn't a strong hurricane, but memorable nonetheless.  


ALICIA (Aug. 18, 1983)

This category 3 hurricane struck Galveston and Houston the day before I left for vacation in Provincetown.  I was supposed to go with my boyfriend Rick but we had hit a rough patch (just a few months after moving in together) so I went there alone.  I overslept by two hours and barely made my flight (on the now defunct People's Express).




GILBERT (Sept. 14-16, 1988)

Hurricane Gilbert was the most intense hurricane to ever enter the Gulf of Mexico and it devastated Jamaica and Cancun, but spared Texas (after earlier dire predictions).  It coincided with my first time on jury duty.  I was picked for a burglary case (that occurred on the Upper Eastside) and we ended up being sequestered for one night.  Fortunately, I shared the motel room (near the Lincoln Tunnel) with a friend of my roommate.  During the same week my boss resigned.  (By the way, we, the jury, found the defendant guilty.)


HUGO (Sept. 22, 1989)

I stayed up into the wee hours on a Thursday night watching coverage on The Weather Channel as Hugo made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina.  It was the strongest hurricane (category 4) to strike the Southeast in 35 years.  The NYC area was under a tropical storm watch with 5-10" of rain predicted, but after Hugo made landfall he changed course and we weren't impacted (which was a relief since four inches of rain had fallen a few days earlier).  A cousin in Charlotte, NC got married that weekend and had to contend with no power and downed trees after Hugo roared through.  Also on this day Irving Berlin died at the age of 101 (he wasn't a hurricane casualty).




BOB (Aug. 19, 1991)

Like Hurricane Gloria six years earlier, Bob stayed to our east, but we still got a good deal of rain which was mostly over by noon on that Monday.  My roommate Todd was on vacation out in Montauk and went without power for a few days.  And my friend Tom was vacationing in Provincetown and had to contend with some inconveniences as well.  He recalls a number of drag queens walking around town with signs that said "I got blown by Bob".  I was relieved the storm was a quick mover because I had tickets for the Broadway show Grand Hotel that evening.  (Yes, that's The Weather Channel's one and only Jim Cantore - when he still had hair!) 




ANDREW (Aug. 24, 1992)

It may be hard to believe, but nothing memorable was going on in my life at the time.   Ironically, the National Hurricane Center in Miami was largely destroyed by Andrew as was the ad agency that had the Burger King account.  It was amazing how few were killed by this incredibly powerful storm (at one point there were rumors that hundreds of migrant farm workers had died).




OPAL (Oct. 4, 1995)

As Opal approached the Florida panhandle it strengthened just before landfall and became the second most damaging hurricane to strike Florida (after Andrew).  However, this story was almost completely lost to the coverage of the not-gulty verdict in the OJ Simpson trial the day before.  And the pope arrived for his second visit to the New York area.   


EDOUARD (Aug. 31 - Sept 1, 1996)

For a brief time Edouard caused concern in NYC and on Long Island.  It was Labor Day weekend and I was out at Fire Island (it was my first summer in the Pines) when word spread on Saturday that Edouard might strike and evacuations might begin that night.  Fortunately, the storm took a turn to the northeast and no evacuations were needed.  One other memory from that weekend - while cleaning the table after Sunday dinner a housemate's guest asked me if anyone had ever mentioned that I looked like "Smithers" from The Simpsons.




FLOYD (Sept. 16, 1999)

Powerful Floyd's approach resulted in the evacuation of 2.6 million residents between Florida and North Carolina.  After striking North Carolina earlier in the morning he quickly moved towards NYC.  Downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached us, Floyd was still a huge rainmaker - five inches fell, the greatest one-day total in more than 20 years (even greater amounts flooded Philadelphia and Newark).  For a while many subway lines were shut down for much of the afternoon because of track flooding and some downed trees.  My office at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding closed at 1:00 (Macy's too) but I stayed until 5:45.  When I got home I intended to go to the gym but it was so windy and rainy that I turned back after walking one block.


KATRINA (Aug. 29, 2005)

I was visiting my mother in Pittsburgh for the weekend when Katrina made its initial landfall in south Florida and then struck Louisiana and Mississippi on the day I returned to NYC (Sunday).  At one point on Sunday it was a category 5 with winds of 175 mph - incredible.  At first some meteorologists on The Weather Channel talked of how New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" when Katrina veered east and instead struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast head-on.

However, after the storm moved on the levees surrounding the city broke - and the rest is history.  The number of deaths was shocking (more than 1,800), especially since stronger hurricanes such as Andrew and Hugo caused fewer than 100 fatalities.  It took months before the final tally was determined.  It was also, by far, the most damaging natural disaster in U.S. history ($100 billion+).




IKE (Sept. 13, 2008)

I watched TWC's coverage during the wee hours of Saturday morning as it struck Galveston and Houston (25 years after Alicia).  One of its reporters, Mike Bettes, got knocked around by the high winds even though he was in a somewhat protected hotel entranceway.  Later that night I watched SNL's 1st episode of the new season and it opened with Tina Fey's portrayal of Sarah Palin.  Two days later the financial markets were rocked by Lehman Bros. filing Chapter 11, followed on the same day by word that Merrill Lynch had been purchased by Bank of America to avoid Lehman's fate.               





If you'd like to immerse yourself further in hurricanes two books to consider are Hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida's Hurricane History.  







Hurricane Camille & Woodstock Share a Weekend (August 17, 1969)

Hurricane-camille-550 The reason I was aware of Woodstock was because of Hurricane Camille.  I had become interested in meteorology a year earlier while doing a 5th Grade science project so I was eagerly following reports about the hurricane.  As I watched Sunday's evening news with rapt attention (no 24/7 coverage on The Weather Channel back in those ancient times) I was made aware of an outdoor music event on a farm south of Woodstock in New York state that had begun on Aug. 15, 1969.  Meanwhile Camille was generating considerable interest because of how ferocious it had become as it approached Mississippi's Gulf Coast.  Indeed, when it made landfall late on Aug. 17 it was one of the most intense hurricanes to ever strike the U.S.  The number of deaths it caused (256) wouldn't be topped until Katrina killed an estimated 1,200 persons in 2005.  Interestingly, veteran WNBC-NY news anchor Chuck Scarborough was a young local anchor in Biloxi, Mississippi back then.) 






Woodstock1 Camille's approach was very exciting for me, but Woodstock not so much.  I was a bit too young (12 years old) to be enamored with "hippie rock" nor had I yet to develop any musical preferences (that would have to wait until Captain & Tennille came on the scene).  Woodstock was more of an event for my sister and brother who were 18 and 16 at the time.  My recollection was seeing aerial photos of the traffic jam leading out of the festival and naked concert goers covered in mud.  For me Woodstock was just another news story that evening - along with the Tate/LaBianca (aka Manson) murders in L.A. that occurred the previous week.  Camille was the main event (as it probably was for much of the nation at the time).





Both events have had numerous books written about them. Three to consider are Category 5: The Story of Camille; Roar of the Heavens; and Woodstock Revisited: 50 Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories from Those Who Were There.  


Remembering TWA Flight 800 & United Flight 232: Two Memorable Mid-July Plane Crashes

News of aviation disasters often produces a visceral reaction since such crashes usually result in a large number of fatalities.  Additionally, since most of us have been on board a plane we can empathize with the doomed passengers.  Two of the nation's most high-profile air disasters occurred in mid-July in 1989 and 1996.


Brian.williams.twaflight800TWA Flight 800 was bound for Paris on the evening of July 17, 1996 when it exploded off the south shore of Long Island shortly after take-off from Kennedy Airport.  Some eyewitnesses reported seeing a streak of light shoot up to the plane, perhaps a missile.  My mother called to tell me the news shortly before I sat down to watch the 11:00 news.  I remember that at one point NBC News anchor Brian Williams resorted to showing the crash location by holding up a paper map since there had been no time to create a whiz-bang graphic.  That summer was the first in which I had a weekend share out in Fire Island Pines and a seat cushion was found washed up on the beach that weekend.  For the rest of the summer whenever any flotsam appeared in the water (the plane came down just 15 miles east of the community) we'd wonder if it was debris from the plane.




Unitedflight232_iowa An air disaster captured on video occurred the afternoon of July 19, 1989 when United Flight 232 bound from Denver to Chicago lost its hydraulic system an hour into the flight and was forced to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa.  Although 111 passengers died there were also 185 survivors.  Besides the high number of survivors what also made this accident stand out was the fact that news crews were waiting for the plane when it crash landed. (For more than an hour it was known the flight was in distress.)  The dramatic footage of the plane breaking apart with pieces of it going up in flames and then somersaulting into a cornfield adjacent to the runway was shown over and over on TV that night.  I didn't see the news coverage until late because I was at a carefree summer networking event, but once I was home I was glued to the TV set as I counted the cash from the evening's event.  It was horrifying, but mesmerizing as well, to watch because it was something rarely captured on video. 





Images On the same day as United 232's crash landing another story out of LA was receiving a lot of coverage as 21-year old actress Rebecca Schaeffer, co-star of the sitcom My Sister Sam, was murdered the day before by a stalker who shot her at point-blank range when she answered the door of her West Hollywood apartment.



Hurricane Agnes Floods the Mid-Atlantic (June 21-24, 1972)

MapofpittsburghBecause of its inland location Pittsburgh isn't susceptible to the furies of a full-blown hurricane (and its hilly topography largely protects it from tornadoes.)  However, the city's famed three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio) make it susceptible to flooding.  Fortunately, the neighborhood I grew up in sat protected on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River about 10 miles down river from Pittsburgh's renowned Golden Triangle. 


Hurricane Agnes was a rare June hurricane, but when it crossed the Florida panhandle on June 19, 1972 it was a weak storm that caused little damage.  However, once it was downgraded to a tropical storm it turned into a prodigious rainmaker as it moved up the Eastern Seaboard.  The storm became known for the loop it made over New York state and Pennsylvania where it stalled and caused catastrophic flooding that extended into Maryland and Virginia as well.




Although our neighborhood was out of harm's way from flooding my family was nevertheless impacted by the storm.  My dad was a foreman at a steel fabricating plant on Neville Island, situated in the middle of the Ohio River, and it closed that Friday (June 23) when water began covering the main highway.




Meanwhile my sister Linda's job  at Joseph Horne department store, where she was an assistant buyer, was interrupted for a few days when the waters of the Allegheny River overran its banks.  To protect the store special floodgates were wrapped around the building.  Linda's plans to see Alice Cooper in concert at Three Rivers Stadium on Friday were scuttled when the waters of the three rivers made their way into the stadium.  And my brother Darrell, who was home from college after his freshman year had a summer job as an usher at the Roxian Theater in our hometown of McKees Rocks and helped bail water from the theater.





Although rainfall in Pittsburgh itself wasn't excessive (2.50" fell on Thursday and Friday) the watershed areas for its rivers and creeks received over six inches and caused the city's most serious flooding since 1936 (e.g., the Monongahela River crested 11-feet above flood stage).  However, flooding in Wilkes-Barre (below), the state capitol of Harrisburg and Elmira, NY was much more destructive.  These areas had in excess of 10 inches of rain.  And despite the fact that summer had just begun temperatures in Pittsburgh got no higher than the mid-50s for three consecutive days (25 degrees cooler than normal).




Fortunately the hurricane season of 1972 was one of the least active on record which allowed the Mid-Atlantic to dry out.  The U.S. mainland wouldn't be ravaged by such a destructive hurricane until 1983 when Alicia hit Houston.  (For those fascinated by hurricanes a book to consider is Hurricanes & the Mid-Atlantic States.)





Americans Target Their Own: Oklahoma City Bombing (April 19, 1995)





When a bomb tore apart the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 I had been at my new job as media research director at New York ad agency Foote Cone & Belding for just a month.  It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon and I was at my desk in my office in the GM Building.  In the background I had the "oldies" radio station WCBS playing (the radio was in the style of one from the 1930s, a send-off gift from my old staff).  It was from that radio that I first heard the shocking news about the explosion that occurred earlier in the morning.


The front of the building had been completely blown off and the death toll slowly mounted as the days went by (the final toll was 168 with nearly 700 injured).  I found it curious when initial reports mentioned children being among the many casualties.  I thought that perhaps a group of students had been on a field trip there.  Later when I got home is when I heard that a daycare center for workers' children was in the building. 




At first many jumped to the conclusion that this was the act of Muslim terrorists, so it was surprising when the FBI showed sketches the next day of two suspects who were Caucasian.  Indications were that the attack was carried out by US citizens who were part of a burgeoning anti-government "militia" movement.  It annoyed me that reporters regularly remarked how awful it was that such an attack happened in "the heartland" as if it would have been less of a tragedy if it occurred in a big city on the East or West Coast.




Six years later the driver of the bomb-laden truck, Timothy McVeigh, was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, three months before the attacks on 9-11 - which would surpass the Oklahoma City bombing as the worst terrorist attack on the US mainland.


Catastrophic Tsunami Wipes Out Holiday Cheer (December 26, 2004)




The morning after Christmas Day 2004 found me relaxing at my mother's house in Pittsburgh reading Sunday's Post Gazette when I came across a small item in the paper's "World News Roundup" section.  It was just one paragraph, about a tidal wave that followed a very strong underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia.  It wasn't until that evening that the enormity of the disaster was communicated to the West.  And for the next week horrifying first-person accounts and videos appeared (see below), bringing the year to a sobering end. 





The tsunami struck the shores of eleven countries and caused an estimated 230,000 deaths (including 9,000 foreign tourists, three times as many as died in the 9-11 attacks).  It ranks as the deadliest tsunami in history and joined a 1976 earthquake in China and a 1970 cyclone in Bangladesh as the deadliest natural disasters in my lifetime.  Less than a year later the U.S. would experience one of its worst natural disasters when Hurricane Katrina produced deadly flooding in New Orleans.  However, Katrina was tame by comparison to this cataclysmic wave of water.