Elwell: Sandy anniversary is reminder that autumn storms can be fierce

Members of the Springfield Fire Division responded to Weiler Welding on West Columbia Street after the strong winds Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, 2012, ripped the roof off the business. Northeastern Ohio saw the brunt of the storm-related losses in the state resulting from Superstorm Sandy. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF
Caption
Members of the Springfield Fire Division responded to Weiler Welding on West Columbia Street after the strong winds Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, 2012, ripped the roof off the business. Northeastern Ohio saw the brunt of the storm-related losses in the state resulting from Superstorm Sandy. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF

It became to be known as “Frankenstorm” – appropriately enough - and this past weekend was its five-year anniversary.

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This massive storm system developed in the western Caribbean Sea on Oct. 22, 2012 and within 6 hours, rapidly strengthened into Tropical Storm Sandy. Two days later, Sandy became a hurricane just before making landfall in Jamaica. Just a day after that, Sandy hit Cuba as a category 3 hurricane. It appeared Cuba had all but destroyed Sandy as the storm weakened to a tropical storm. But on Oct. 27, Sandy regained hurricane strength and then began to make an incredibly unusual turn. Early on Oct, 29, Sandy curved west-northwest and made landfall just northeast of Atlantic City, N.J.

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Sandy, fueled by ocean water temperatures that were around five degrees above normal, merged with an incoming storm system, and reached a massive size of over 1100 miles-wide. The media began to call the system, “Superstorm Sandy. The center of Sandy moved into Ohio the day before Halloween and morphed into a powerful winter storm, dumping one to three inches of snow over parts of the state. Over a foot of snow fell in neighboring West Virginia. Wind gusts over Lake Erie near Cleveland were measured just under 70 mph, causing damage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum. By the time the storm dissipated, it had impacted over 20 states, claiming 233 lives and costing around $75 billion. It was certainly a storm many won’t soon forget.

But powerful storms in late autumn are not terribly unusual. In fact, they are quite common across the Great Lakes. While Sandy was a system to the likes we had not seen before, we do often get intense storm systems known as The November Witches of the Great Lakes. These powerful storms have also been called November Gales, White Hurricanes, and Freshwater Furies. Whatever you call them, these storm systems are fueled by the massive, relatively warm Great Lakes.

When cold, dry air starts to surge southward from Canada, it then converges with warm, moist air moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico. This is the initial spark that gets a storm system started. Then add a strong jet stream over the northern U.S., which helps intensify it further and steers it over the Great Lakes.

Once this storm system moves over the Lakes, the relatively warm water adds the final ingredient to an explosive mixture, and a Great Lakes hurricane is born. They can produce wind gusts greater than 100 mph, drop several inches of rain and snow, and produce record low barometric pressure readings. These killer storms happen with enough regularity that they are known as a bane for the people living along the Lakes, and a foe of the ships that cross them. Since the mid-1800s, there have been more than two dozen of these cyclones recorded over the Great Lakes, most of them in November.

The worst storm on record was known as The Big Storm of 1913, and it affected all five Great Lakes. Thirteen ships sank and more than 240 men lost their lives, most of them on Lake Huron. Winds were estimated at 90 mph, with waves of more than 35 feet, along with whiteout snow squalls.

However, the most infamous storm was dubbed the Witch of November – striking on Nov. 10, 1975. This storm produced winds of 100 mph, creating 35-foot waves on many of the Great Lakes. This storm sunk one of the largest cargo ships of the time, the Edmund Fitzgerald, killing all 29 crew.

For those who have lived along or near the Great Lakes, you know that this time of year we are entering can bring about some intense storm systems. It is all a part of the changing of the seasons. The last major Great Lakes storm struck on Halloween of 2014, forming over Lake Michigan. One might say we may be due for another major autumn storm, luckily, improvements in building codes and technology has meant impacts of such storms are less than they were many years ago.

Eric Elwell is WHIO StormCenter 7 Chief Meteorologist. Contact him at eric.elwell@coxinc.com or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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