Great Storm of 1913 revisited: 258 killed, ships lost

Weather

An archive image from 1913 included in a National Weather Service report shows the capsized Charles S. Price. (NWS)

(WOOD) — Exactly 106 years ago, a Great Storm hit the Great Lakes, causing the worst inland maritime disaster of its kind in the U.S.

The National Weather Service says the Great Storm of 1913 was actually two winter storms that pummeled the region between Nov. 7 and Nov. 10 of that year, killing approximately 258 people, sinking at least a dozen ships and grounding at least 30 other vessels.

It remains the largest inland maritime disaster in the nation in terms of ship losses. Lake Michigan swallowed one ship during the storm — a steamer named the Plymouth, which was lost near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Seven people died.

An undated courtesy photo shows the Plymouth, which sank in Lake Michigan during the Great Storm of 1913. Seven people aboard died. (Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

But Lake Huron was the setting for the deadliest four hours in Great Lakes history, according to the NWS. According to an NWS simulation, wind gusts there exceeded 80 mph and waves reached as high as 28 feet about every 3 minutes beginning around 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1913.

An image shared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the bell to the Regina, which was recovered from the shipwreck after the Great Storm of 1913.

Of the 12 larger ships that wrecked during the storm, eight were on Lake Huron and those claimed 187 lives.

The NWS says two ships were also lost on Lake Superior and another wrecked on Lake Erie.

>>PHOTOS: Great Lakes ships lost during the Great Storm of 1913

THE ‘METEOROLOGICAL BOMB’

An image taken underwater shows the propeller of the Isaac M. Scott. (Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

The NWS says the only records of the storm are accounts by survivors, who reported sustained winds of up to 70 mph with gusts as high as 90 mph. On the water, waves climbed to as high as 35 feet, survivors said.

But models created by the NWS suggest the Great Storm of 1913 was really two storms, starting with the “pre-storm” that pummeled Lakes Superior and Michigan on Nov. 7 and 8, fed by unseasonably warm conditions.

>>PDF: NWS findings on Great Storm of 1913

A photo shared in a National Weather Service report shows the snow that fell on Cleveland during the Great Storm of 1913. (NWS)

The NWS says that storm set up “unusual atmospheric phasing” to the north, which collided with a storm from the southeast, creating a “meteorological bomb.”

Storm Team 8 says a “meteorological bomb” happens when a storm system rapidly intensifies and drops at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. When these two storms merged, the “pre-storm” dropped 31 millibars in 24 hours, creating the strongest and deadliest phase of the Great Storm of 1913, called the “White Hurricane.”

From Nov. 9 through Nov. 11, 1913, the storm hit the eastern Great Lakes region with hurricane-force winds, whiteout conditions, freezing spray and massive waves.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the system dumped nearly two feet of snow in two days, bringing the city to a standstill and leading to dayslong outages.

A photo shared in a National Weather Service report shows the snow that fell on Cleveland during the Great Storm of 1913. (NWS)

The NWS says Lake Michigan endured 13 hours of hurricane force winds during the Great Storm — outdone only by Lake Erie (16 hours) and Lake Superior (20 hours). Lake Huron was hit by hurricane force winds for 10 hours, according to the weather service’s model.

COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN?

While the National Weather Service said the conditions that led to the Great Storm of 1913 were unusual, there isn’t any physical reason it couldn’t happen again, according to Storm Team 8.

However, Storm Team 8 says the impact would likely be much less severe now, thanks to advancements in weather forecasting technology and quicker communication.

In 1913, what was then known as the Weather Bureau had to rely on the telegraph to warn hundreds of stations along the Great Lakes’ shores about gales. The NWS says the stations would post flags and lanterns to warn sailors of the impending storms typically 12 to 24 hours before they hit. However, those aboard a ship already on the water had no way of knowing what storms may lie ahead.

The NWS says while the Weather Bureau issued gale warnings on Nov. 7, 1913, ahead of the Great Storm, the bureau was even surprised by the power and endurance of the storm.

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