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Irene’s 1-in-100 Year Rains Trigger Deadly Flooding

By Joe Romm  

"Irene’s 1-in-100 Year Rains Trigger Deadly Flooding"

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Some folks in the media and denier-sphere have tried to downplay the severity of Hurricane Irene.  That’s probably because they don’t live in my home town of Middletown, New York, one of the many Hudson Valley & Catskills towns devastated by Irene.  Where I grew up, this was the storm of the century.

Above is a screen capture from the website of the Middletown Times Herald Record, the paper my father ran for some 3 decades starting in the late 1950s.  The paper now does video reporting, and I’ll repost their amazing coverage of the super-storm below.  That story notes that “emergency personnel”  in the area have labeled Irene, “the most devastating weather event ever to hit the region.”

First, though, meteorologist and hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters has the big picture in his post, “Irene’s 1-in-100 Year Rains Trigger Deadly Flooding“:

Hurricane Irene is gone, but the huge hurricane’s torrential rains have unleashed one of the Northeast’s greatest flood disasters. Videos of rampaging rivers in Vermont, New York State, New Jersey, and surrounding states attest to the extreme nature of the great deluge Hurricane Irene brought. Numerous rivers and creeks throughout the Northeast crested above their highest flood stages on record over the past 24 hours. The previous records were mostly set during some of the great hurricanes of 50 – 60 years ago–Hazel of 1954, Connie and Diane of 1955, and Donna of 1960. Vermont, where 3 – 7 inches of rain fell in just twelve hours, was particularly hard-hit. Otter Creek in Rutland, Vermont crested at 17.21 feet, 3.81′ above its previous record, and more than 9 feet above flood stage. In northern New Jersey and Southeast New York, where soils were already saturated from the region’s wettest August on record even before Irene arrived, record flooding was the norm. According to imagery from metstat.com, Irene’s rains were a 1-in-100 year event for portions of six states.

Here’s the video from my home town newspaper:

I checked with some of my childhood friends, and they report massive flooding in Middletown, including around the newspaper — “cars floating down the street with people inside them.”

The NY Times has a good story, “Inland Floods in Northeast May Be Irene’s Biggest Impact,” which related:

… it was the water, not the wind, that was the major culprit.In New York, the town of Prattsville has been washed away. In other areas, houses were swept from their foundations and one woman drowned on Sunday when an overflowing creek submerged the cottage where she was vacationing. Flash floods continued to be a concern into the afternoon on Monday.

Here’s an ABC News report:

Finally, Masters has more details on this devastating record-smashing storm:

Here are a few of the rivers in the Northeast that set all-time flood height records over the past 24 hours, which I found using our wundermap with the USGS rivers layers turned on:

Mettawee River, Middle Granville, NY
Hoosic River, North Bennington, VT
Saxton River, Saxtons RIver, VT
Schoharie Creek, Gilboa, NY
Esopus Creek, Coldbrook, NY
Passaic River, Millington, NJ
Rockaway River, Boonton, NJ
Pompton River, Pompton Plains, NJ
Millstone RIver, Blackwells Mills, NJ
Assunpink Creek, Trenton, NJ

And here are the unofficial maximum 24-hour rainfall amounts each state received from Irene, as compiled by our weather historian, Christopher C. Burt:

North Carolina: 14.00″ Bunyan
Virginia: 12.52″ Ft. Eustis
Maryland: 12.96″ Plum Point
Delaware: 8.50″ Federalsburg
Pennsylvania: 8.00″ Goldsboro
New Jersey: 10.20″ Wayne
New York: 11.48″ Tuxedo Park
Connecticut: 8.70″ Burlington
Massachusetts: 9.10″ Savoy
Vermont: 7.60″ Walden
New Hampshire: 6.09″ 5SE Sandwich
Rhode Island: 5.37″ Warren
Maine: 6.11″ Phillips

Newark, NJ broke its all-time 24-hour precip record with a total of 8.92″ (8/27-28)–old record 7.84″ on 8/27-28/1971. Also, New York City, Philadelphia, and Newark now have August 2011 as their rainiest month in recorded history. Overall damages from Irene could range from $5 billion to $10 billion, according to Kinetic Analysis, a risk assessment firm that specializes in natural disaster impact. This would put Irene between 13th and 24th place on the list of the most damaging hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. Irene is very likely to have its name retired. The multi-billion dollar price tag from Irene puts the year 2011 in first place for the greatest number of billion-dollar disasters in one year, ten. The previous record was nine such disasters, set in 2008.

No, this wasn’t Katrina, which made landfall 6 years ago today, but for millions, it was still the storm of the century.

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21 Responses to Irene’s 1-in-100 Year Rains Trigger Deadly Flooding

  1. David B. Benson says:

    And congress appears all set to reduce weather related monitoring, such as stream gauges, satellities and the like.

  2. Steven Leibo says:

    For me the ultimate irony was that my climate crisis class at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York was supposed to start today. But instead we all held our collective breath hoping the rising Hudson would not flood the campus and a lot of the city.

  3. Peter Mizla says:

    Power was lost yesterday (Sunday) at 8am- restored tonight at 10:30pm.

    State of CT still has 500,000 w/o power. Coastal CT hit the hardest from a ‘Tropical storm’— storm did not have the technical definition of a hurricane. But damage was very heavy from New Haven east to the Rode Island border.

    Why a storm of such low pressure, but under 75pmh winds caused so much damage is a mystery to me.

    The states worst disaster since Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

    • Leif says:

      Saturated soil from previous events is one obvious culprit but Gail’s hypothesis, on “Wits End,” should be investigated as well. Weakened trees and root systems caused from ground level pollution is a distinct possibility. After all it is clear that these chemicals effect human health, why would plants be different? It would be quite revealing to do a census of tree damage to see if most were toppled because of root holding power or were broken at the trunk or branches and the strength of the wood at the break point. I have seen many photos of broken trees that show a distinct punkie break as opposed to strong breaks which would appear quite different. I am a wood worker and have seen and broken lots of wood in my life. I do however live on the west coast so do not have first hand observation. Samples of the root tensile strength at the break point and compared with similar size roots from similar trees in pristine locations could also be revealing.

  4. The Kingston Freeman has more coverage of flooding in much of Ulster County, including video of downtown Windham being wiped out by flood waters:

    http://www.dailyfreeman.com/

  5. pete best says:

    yes but is it linked to ACC or just being used by environmentalists to demonstrate something related to ACC in the future.

    • Ed Hummel says:

      Not to beat a dead horse, but any weather disaster happens because a confluence of events in the atmosphere come together at just the right time and place to cause them. Hurricanes and tornadoes, for example, have always happened and will always happen in the future as long as Earth has an atmosphere with water vapor in it. However, it can’t be stressed enough that the addition of green house gases by humans over the last 200 years has tipped the greenhouse gas forcing mechanism (which has also been with us since Earth had an atmosphere with such gases in it)to cause a generally warming atmosphere which leads it to try to find a new equilibrium state to distribute the excess heat from the tropics to poleward latitudes (what we call weather). In so doing, the atmosphere becomes more volatile since it has more energy to work with and it tends to produce more extreme events, which is what we’re now seeing in increasing numbers and with increasing impact on human built infrastructure and activities, especially agriculture and commerce. THAT is the problem posed by human induced global warming.

      We’re inadvertantly increasing the odds and the frequency of experiencing devastating weather events which by definition means we’re changing the climate. And most importantly of all, we’re doing at speeds that can only be compared to asteroid or comet impacts of the past as far as its dramatic effects on climate are concerned. All the major changes of last 2 million years of the Pleistocene that we know as the Ice Ages have occurred gradually over thousands of years as Earth’s orbit has been altered slightly by the well understood Milankovich cycles. But now, we’re changing a major forcing mechanism in the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, and that’s why MOST climate scientists around the world (those with no political or economic ax to grind which is about 98% of them who do science for the love of knowledge, not for a paycheck which would certainly be more lucrative on Wall Street if they really wanted to get rich)are so concerned and alarmed at what we’re doing and at what we can expect with increasing certainty. Anyone who thinks that the mass of humanity can’t affect major Earth systems is living in a fantasy world pushed by Madison Avenue types who think that the highest purpose of humanity is making a buck at the expense of the rest of the Earth.

      Anyone who really understands science and what it has shown us over the last 500 years is that Earth is not a stage on which we play our games with each other and of which we can extract “resources” to our hearts content because it was put here for us to use as we see fit. In reality, we’re just “part of the scenery” and subject to all the rules of physics, chemistry and biology that all other life forms are also subject to. So, if we keep pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the climate system will react the same way it has done for millions and even billions of years in the past when other natural agents did something similar. The sooner we realize that humans are a force of nature just like any other organism, the better off we’ll be. But I have my doubts that collectively we’ll wake up in time to stop our eventual extinction along with that of millions of other species. Maybe we should use the nickname, “Chixulub”!

  6. Doug Bostrom says:

    And congress appears all set to reduce weather related monitoring, such as stream gauges, satellities and the like.

    Facts are so inconvenient, “what we don’t know can’t hurt us,” Monnett, “Big Government,” etc.

    Is the Cloud of Stupid now suffocating us weather, or climate?

    All the same, we’re almost connecting the dots now:

    [New Jersey] State climatologist David Robinson said the only worse flooding statewide was the Great Flood on 1903.

    “We’re talking a tragic mass of flooding,” he said.

    Robinson said the state seems to be in a pattern of frequent heavy rains. It’s not all explained by impervious surfaces brought in by sprawl. “It’s not as if in 1999, New Jersey suddenly developed,” he said.”
    Flooding, cleanup and outages well after Irene

    Knight Science Journalism Tracker does a roundup of press coverage of Irene’s climate angle here. Teaser: The feisty perfectionist in global warming alarm, for a welcome break from pattern, does not come out guns blazing at those on basically his side but who don’t seem sufficiently panicked. Guess who? :-)

  7. John Tucker says:

    Thats really sad. I hope people are careful in that water. My father drowned in 2004 getting hung up on something in murky water that wasn’t all that deep. He was using a net but I imagine your cloths could snag or currents near something big could be just as bad. If you are exhausted too it wouldn’t take much.

    As of today we are tied with 2005 (the busiest hurricane year) in the number of named systems thus far. On the 31st 2005 will move out ahead of us as Lee formed up as a tropical storm and dissipated­. (2005 also had 5 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes by now, to our 1 and 1. But still its worth noting this could easily still turn out to be another record year or close to it.)

  8. Zan says:

    Joe this and your article, “How does Global Warming make hurricanes like Irene more destructive?” are just excellent. The font is very clear and easy to read, too, by the way.

    My husband notes that weather is made, as well, when the ocean water and land get warmer while space higher up is colder. Warm air mixes with cold air, add moisture and that impacts the weather, he says.

  9. Zan says:

    Also, I’m sorry to hear about your hometown!! I have several friends and family caught without power and roads out from flooding in NY, NJ and CT. And VT was caught a bit by surprise, I think! That saddens me, too. I hope your family all did well where you were.

    My husband used to live in FL and he said the number one cause of death(from hurricanes) then was drowning, and I also think it’s possible to get hit by trees or electrocuted by a downed wire. Even the ground around such a wire can be electrified for 50-100 ft.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Albany Times-Union has a photo collection of flood damage in the Catskills, Mohawk Valley and upper Hudson Valley: “and the rivers roared.”
    It scales from the personal losses to aerial photographs of rivers in flood.
    http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Twin-Bridges-reopen-Massive-flooding-along-the-2145609.php

    Flooding has closed a section of New York State Thruway eastbound from Syracuse to Schenectady, and a west bound section from Schenectady to Herkimer.

  11. Mike Foreman says:

    So far this month, Burlington, Vermont has received 6.09 inches of rain.

    http://www.wunderground.com/

    In August 1955, Burlington received 11.54 inches of rain.

    In August 1965, Burlington received 6.27 inches of rain.

    In August 1977, Burlington received 6.27 inches of rain.

    In August, 2004, Burlington received 7.87 inches of rain.

    All higher than August 2011.

    http://cdiac.ornl.gov/

    • Doug Bostrom says:

      Turns out that Burlington is surrounded by the rest of Vermont:

      Hardest hit was Vermont, where heavy rains in the weeks prior to Irene’s arrival had left soils in the top 20% for moisture, historically. Irene dumped 5 – 8 inches of rain over large sections of Vermont, with a peak of 11.23″ at Mendo. The reading from Mendo was the greatest single-day rainfall in Vermont’s history, according to wunderground’s weather historian Christopher C. Burt, beating the 9.92″ that fell at Mt. Mansfield on 9/17/1999 during the passage of Tropical Storm Floyd.

      Jeff Masters

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    What would be the total damages bill so far this year for (un)natural disasters in the USA? Whatever astronomical figure is finally calculated, add this to the national debt.

    Now add in the accumulating cost of lost ecological capital due to subtle long term loss of basic ecological resources such as trees, wetlands, reefs, the ph of the oceans, top ocean predators and ultimately oxygen.

    Then add the accumulating cost of loss of confidence in representative government with associated reluctance to hire and borrow.

    Anybody who thinks there is a dichotomy between worrying about the economy and the environment needs to start thinking about the planet as a system. The last two years have shown us that there is a highly significant correlation between economics and ecology – who pays for these disasters? where does the money come from? What happens when the disasters cost more than we have in the bank?

    Forget all that rubbish about $ and value. The value lies in our relationship to our planet, Earth, our home, our Mother, you know, the things we call ‘resources’. I know the USA is rich, and the planet as a whole is still rich (if you still believe that is a fact given that the oceans are dying), but when the the global economy is going down as the health of the planet is going down, ask yourselves:

    Does this look a correlation? – is there a plausible expanation?

    Yes, you can’t get a life from a dying planet. You certainly can’t get a growing economy from a dying planet.

    If nothing changes soon, it sounds like we are going to go out with a wimper.

    Is this really what you want? There is only one Earth, ME

  13. cervantes says:

    I live in Windham County Ct, more than 90 miles from the closest approach of the storm center. My town was just smashed. I don’t expect to have electricity until next week — whole rows of poles were ripped down. The streets were nearly impassable but I managed to escape by driving under a tree that was draped over power lines and dangling about 4 feet above the road. It scraped along the hood, windshield and roof but I made it. There was no other exit from my valley — streets were blocked in all 4 other possible routes. Some people were indeed completely trapped. Power was out in 100% of eastern CT, 2 entire counties, and most of the rest of the state. I was astonished to see people mocking the storm and laughing about how it was overhyped. It was huge.

    • Peter Mizla says:

      The eastern part of Connecticut suffered a huge amount of wind damage. I hope your power is restored soon.

      Western CT has had the rain- floods. Just west of Hartford was inundated.

  14. George Ennis says:

    Well if the GOP has its way they will not be providing FEMA with the money needed to meet weather disasters. It’s not even clear that FEMA has the money to cover the existing catastrophe.

    It sees that the GOP is following the script of denying climate change, criminalizing and attacking climatologists, defunding the national weather service and next defunding FEMA.

    They are determined to ensure there will be no reduction of emissions and no adaptation to climate change.

  15. Lazarus says:

    As I noted here;
    http://lazarus-on.blogspot.com/2011/08/phony-hurricane-kills-at-least-21.html

    Deniers (Goddard in particular) were calling it a ‘Phoney’ Hurricane alone with others trying to down play the event. I wonder how stupid they feel now?

  16. Ross Williams says:

    I live in Dutchess Co. NY on the east side of Hudson in the highlands (Milan, NY); I keep rain gauge reoords, and between Aug. 6 and Aug. 25, we had 11 1/8 inches on my deck. Between 3 pm. Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday, we received over (another) 11+” (+ because overnight the rain gauge filled to the top, and the actual rainfall could be more), washing out many roads, including the county road I live on and many town roads. This was truly more than a 1 in 100 year events. Certainly climate change’s increase in atmospheric water contributed to the unbelievable severtiy of the storm. It wasn’t the wind, it was the rain.