The Hurricanes of the 1930s in Virginia and North Carolina
The decade of the 1930s was a very active one for hurricane landfalls
in Virginia and the Carolinas. The decade
featured two significant hurricanes striking the region in the same year (1933) and also featured hurricanes which brought the highest and second highest tides of record for the Hampton Roads area. Details on individual storms follow.
The Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of August 23, 1933
The first hurricane of significance for northeastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia was also the most significant for the decade in northeastern North Carolina and for the century for the Norfolk area. The 1933 hurricane season was the most active of record for the North Atlantic basin with a total of 21 tropical storms and hurricanes. The Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane developed on August 17th and was the eight storm of the season and was considered a classic Cape Verde hurricane with a long track across the Atlantic basin. The storm attained Category 4 intensity on August 20th over the open Atlantic well northeast of the windward islands.
The hurricane moved in a general northwesterly course over the Atlantic until August 21st at which time the storm turned more west-northwesterly beneath a ridge of high pressure building into New England. The center of the hurricane passed some 90 miles south on Hamilton, Bermuda raking the British colony with 80 mph winds. By this time the storm had weakened to a strong Category 2 hurricane and had expanded greatly in size. The expansive area of high pressure over New England steered the storm toward the Mid-Atlantic region.
Warnings were broadcast for the approaching storm on August 22nd. Many residents in the Hampton Roads area recall increasingly rough surf conditions during the afternoon of August 22nd. Local jurisdictions in Norfolk and Princess Anne counties ordered evacuations of Ocean View, Willoughy Spit and the Virginia Beach oceanfront that evening. The hurricane made landfall in the Nags Head area shortly after 300 AM August 23rd moving in a northwesterly direction toward Norfolk. Click here to see a track of this hurricane.
A full fledged hurricane had not moved directly over the city of Norfolk since the great Norfolk-Long Island hurricane of September 3, 1821 (Ludlam, AMS). The hurricane of 1933 passed directly over South Norfolk (northern Chesapeake) and downtown Norfolk shortly after 900 AM as a minimal Category 2 hurricane in terms of storm surge and central pressure. Winds in the area reached those of a Category 1 hurricane with highest sustained winds of 57 mph in downtowen Norfolk....70 mph at the Norfolk Naval Air Station and 66 mph at Cape Henry. The peak wind gusts were 70 mph in downtown Norfolk....82 mph at Cape Henry and 88 mph at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.
The lowest pressure observed in Norfolk was 971 mb or 28.68" of mercury. This was the lowest pressure recorded in hurricane up to that date. The tide at Sewells Point reached a full 9.8 feet above MLLW. This was the highest tide of record for the area. The downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth gages recorded tide levels of 9.0 and 9.3 feet above MLLW respectively. The track of the hurricane along the western periphery of the Chesapeake Bay to the nations capital on the evening of August 23rd brought tide levels of 6-9 feet above MLLW over a large portion of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The ever narrowing tidal Potomac River crested at 12 feet above MLLW severely flooding Alexandria, VA and Washington D.C.
18 persons were killed in the hurricane in the states of North Carolina and Virginia with a majority of the lives taken in Virginia. Damages were in the tens of millions of dollars.
The Hurricane of September 16, 1933
The 1933 hurricane season brought another significant hurricane to the region. This storm developed across the western portion of the Atlantic just east of the Bahamas at the peak of the hurricane season on September 10th. The hurricane moved in a northwesterly direction toward the southeast coast of the United States gradually attaining Category 3 intensity.
The hurricane made landfall in the Cape Lookout area of North Carolina on the morning of September 16, 1933 maintaining Category 3 intensity. Winds of 100 to 120 mph struck the New Bern and Beaufort areas pushing tides in the western Pamlico Sound to 10 feet above MLLW severely flooding those areas.
The hurricane turned more to the north and northeast slicing across the extreme eastern portion of the Albemarle Sound, passing directly over Elizabeth City in the late afternoon of the 16th. From there the hurricane exited into the Atlantic near Corolla and the Virginia-North Carolina border. The 90 mph winds on the western side of the hurricane resulted in "blow-out" tides along the north shore of the Albemarle Sound from Elizabeth City westward resulting in the lowest tides ever recorded for the northern banks of the Albemarle Sound.
In southeast Virginia, northeast winds of 55 to 75 mph on the weaker side of the hurricane raked the Norfolk area. The tide at Sewells Point crested at 8.3 feet above MLLW....a full foot and a half below the level reached in the August hurricane. As a result damages were much less than those incurred in the August storm. Click here to see a track of the September 1933 hurricane.
The "Post" Labor Day Hurricane of September 6, 1935
The Labor Day Hurricane of September 1935 was the worst hurricane to strike the United States this century, having moved across the middle Florida Keys and killed 400 persons in its wake. The hurricane turned up the west coast of Florida and made a second landfall in the Tampa Bay area. The storm then crossed Georgia and the Carolinas before exiting the coast near the Virginia-North Carolina border. The storm regained hurricane intensity as it exited the coast.
The effects of the storm in southeastern Virginia were confined to tropical storm force winds of 40 to 50 mph in gusts and the spawning of several tornadoes in east-central Virginia. The most significant tornado tracked from Portsmouth across Craney Island to the western portions of the city of Norfolk and Willoughby Spit killing 3 persons and inflicting damages of a million dollars.
The Hurricane of September 18, 1936
The second most significant storm to strike the area in the decade of the 1930s occurred on September 18, 1936. The hurricane season was another active season in the Altantic basin with a total of 18 storms. This particular storm developed on the 9th of September at the peak of hurricane season several hundred miles northeast of the windward islands and moved in a slow but steady northwest track for the next week. The hurricane steadily intensified reaching Category 3 status on September 17th while threatening coastal North Carolina and Virginia.
The track of the 1936 hurricane through September 17th strongly resembled that of the 1933 hurricane and residents were preparing for a potential blow greater than the destructive hurricane of August 1933.
The great hurricane turned to the north during the overnight hours of September 17-18th, brushing the Nags Head-Corolla area and passing within 25 miles of Virginia Beach. This last minute change in track placed the Hampton Roads area on the weker western side of the hurricane, nonetheless the 70 mph northerly winds pushed tide levels at Sewells Point to within a half foot (9.3 feet above MLLW) of the levels reached in the great August 1933 hurricane.
Downtown Norfolk was once agin severely flooded. Fortunately the hurricane began to accelerate and veer sharply northeastward taking the highest winds offshore within a matter of hours. Tide levels quickly receded and area damages were much less than those incurred in the August 1933 hurricane. There was only 1 perosn killed in this hurricane, thanks largely to advanced warning. Click here to see a track of the September 1936 hurricane.
"Long Island Express" Hurricane of September 21, 1938
Although the Long Island Express hurricane for the most part bypassed the Virginia-North Carolina coast, it is noteworthy in the sense that even through the hurricane passed 150-200 miles east of the Virginia Capes, the area was still battered by wind gusts of 50-60 mph well into the "weaker" western semi-circle of the hurricane. The 1938 hurricane went on to become the most devastating hurricane in New England's history.