Looking Back At Irene

Storm Loses Punch, But Still Packs A Wallop For East Coast

The storm has now passed, and the clean-up begins.  With Irene out of the way, it is time to reflect on what has just happened.  While forecasters were calling for this storm to be much worse, Irene didn’t pack as much punch as anticipated.  The storm really didn’t bring any hurricane force winds to New Jersey and New York, but depending on where you were and how you were affected, it could be one of the worst storms ever.

Based upon personal experience of nearly 35 years of following and dealing with hurricanes, tropical storms, and nor’easters, this was the worst one ever.  Some may disagree with that since the winds weren’t that bad.  In addition, some of the flooding may have not been as bad as it was had it not been for the saturated ground that was already in place thanks to 10 plus inches of rain across New Jersey.

Facts On Hurricane Irene

Before we get into the particulars on how this storm stacks up, here are some basic facts on Irene as of right now according to various sources including past info from my web sites, the State Climatologist of New Jersey, the National Hurricane Center, ABC News, and Monday morning’s USA Today:

*Hurricane Irene made three separate landfalls:  One in North Carolina, New Jersey, and New York.

*Irene’s landfall in New Jersey was the first in over a century, and third all time.  The other two times were in 1821 and 1903.

*First landfall in New York City since 1893.

*First time NYC had to shut down the transit system, and call for mandatory evacuations.

*Lowest pressure ever recorded at the Greg’s Weather Center station at 28.64 inches.

*65 million people were affected.

*Storm left 21 people dead across 8 different states.

*Initial insurance estimates calculate up to $10 billion in damage.

*Approximately 4.5 million people without power across 10 states.

*Flooding and downed trees blocked sections of the New Jersey Turnpike, I-295, and Garden State Parkway.

*Downed trees and power lines along with flooding closed about 200 roads in parts of Maryland.

*Widespread flooding, storm surge of up to 8 feet in Norfolk, and 11 inches of rain in Suffolk in Virginia.  

*Approximately 225 roads and 21 bridges were shut down, and two piers were destroyed in North Carolina.

*Flooding and downed trees closed roads in Delaware;  Tornado caused damage in the city of Lewes.

*Boston’s transit system was shut down.

*Vermont is reporting some of the worst flooding ever.

*Flights cancelled out of Portland International Airport in Maine.

How Does Irene Compare To Recent East Coast Storms

Based on my personal experience with storms from the late 1970s, I would say that this one is up there as one of the worst to effect New Jersey.  First, the fact that Irene made landfall in the Garden State is historical in the sense that the state is protected from direct hits by tropical storms and landfalling hurricanes by the way the East Coast geography.

In terms of barometric pressure, Irene is the lowest ever recorded here in South Plainfield since I’ve been taking records for almost 10 years.  With that said, I’m not sure of how that ranks against other storms in the area.  It is still very low pressure.  I do recall the pressure getting very low when Hurricane Gloria approached the Garden State in September 1985.

There have been some nor’easters in recent years that caused big drops in barometric pressure.  Some have bottomed out at 28.80 or so in South Plainfield, but I don’t have the weather data in front of me at the moment to compare.  In terms of rainfall, the storm wasn’t actually that bad.  Only five plus inches from Irene.  Rain back on August 14th was comparable at 4.15 inches. Rainfall amounts in what was left of Hurricane Floyd was much worse.  During Floyd, there was 11.67 inches of rain in South Plainfield, and over a foot in other places such as flood weary Bound Brook.

However, according to David Robinson, the State Climatologist in New Jersey, conditions were much drier prior to Floyd in September, 1999.  Before Irene, that wasn’t the case.  August 2011 was one of the wettest months on record.  In South Plainfield alone, there was 10.30 inches of rain prior to the storm.  There had been 14 days of measurable rainfall in just the first 21 days of the month in Northwestern Middlesex County.  When you combine that with the surge that came in from Raritan Bay, it made for a terrible flooding event.

Speaking of the surge, it was probably among the worst ever for the Garden State.  I had never seen Raritan Bay get as swollen or as angry as it was early Saturday night.  The shear size and power of the hurricane, drove water into the coastline as South Amboy.  Now, there may be others including residents of South Amboy, Lawrence Harbor, Cliffwood Beach, Woodbridge, Sayreville and Perth Amboy, who may have seen worse.  Others familiar with other past storms may have also seen or have records of it being worse.

Finally, the winds.  While they whipped up pretty good on Saturday night into Sunday morning, it was probably about as bad as the Holiday Blizzard last year give or take a few miles per hour.  True there were trees that were down, but the winds were aided by the fact that there was a lot of rain and the grounds were already plenty saturated.  So, it was easier to uproot trees.  Overall, this was the worst storm experience I ever had.  Of course a lot of that was due to the flood level in my neighborhood, and my subsequent evacuation.

Nevertheless, Irene could have been a lot worse.  Forecasters did call for the storm to become much stronger in terms of wind, but that didn’t materialize.  The dry air that got entrenched into the system after it pulled away from the Northern Bahamas on Wednesday night, the storm gradually weakened thanks to the presence of the dry air.  Tropical storms and hurricanes do not like dry air as well as cooler waters and wind shear.

Looks like we dodged a bullet with Irene, but there’s still plenty of hurricane season left.  Ninety plus days remain until the Atlantic Hurricane season ends on November 30th.