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Canadian Disasters: Newfoundland's Hurricane of 1775

By Edited Mar 5, 2015 0 0

On the western side of Canada in 1775 they quite likely were dealing with the after effects of a volcanic event and on the eastern side of Canada in Newfoundland during the same year they were dealing with a tropical storm of the likes of which they have not been seen. And Newfoundland has seen more than it's fair share of extreme weather.

The eruption in British Columbia killed upwards of two thousand people, and in Newfoundland and Labrador the storm killed about four thousand people. It is still, to this day, Canada's worst natural disaster. Yet neither disaster is a part of any history books used in Canadian schools. And in fact they are rarely spoken or studied.

We commemorate the loss of the American vessel the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior, but not the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in St. Lawrence which resulted in over a thousand lives lost and is easily Canada's worst single marine vessel disaster. The 1949 fire on the Noronic in Toronto Harbour ended with one hundred and eighteen dead, yet our gaze is on the French liner Normandie in New York Harbour that resulted in the loss of a single life. In 1929 Newfoundland and Labrador lost twenty-eight people in a quake and tsunami that is easily Canada's most tragic earthquake, yet it is the details of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake we are familiar with.

I can appreciate we are a modest people and not often found dwelling or even celebrating on any of our disasters whether real or potential, natural or man-made. But it is, in my opinion, inexcusable to forget so much history in favour of more 'popular' disasters. By studying historical disasters one can understand the full effects and use it as a guide for future protection such as warning systems with better designs and respond to emergency situations quicker.

The hurricane that was likely conceived in the arid Sahara desert, born in the warm moist air of the tropics and grew in strength as it travelled over the oceans feeding on thunderstorms and warm air. Landed at least three times – First surprising Martinique and Dominica, then upsetting North Carolina in the United States and finally catching Newfoundland and Labrador off guard in late August and early September of 1775.

A quick note or two, there is a general consensus that this one storm hit all three locations, but too, there is a growing number of academics and scientists who believe this storm was two to three different storms and a smaller few believing it also hit Havana Cuba in August 28th and 29th[1]. This article treats it as one storm with the focus on Newfoundland. Secondly many sources with accurate details incorrectly stated that the 1775 natural disaster was seismic in nature, due to incorrect reporting from researchers and scientists. It is not seismic related and is in fact a storm surge.

Any time you are dealing with a historical subject the information tends to become sparser the further back one goes. Such was the case with the volcanic event in British Columbia, the only record of it is found in evidence left behind and native people's folklore. This is not the case for the Newfoundland hurricane, which occurred around the same time, there are a number of resources or references with details about the hurricane and its destruction of life and property.

On the 12th of September 1775 a hurricane blew through Newfoundland and when the waters had quieted there were about four thousand dead, thousands of ships ruined, entire fishing communities lost people and no one was left untouched. In his book titled The History of Newfoundland, written in 1819 by Rev Anspach he wrote:

On the 12th of September, in the year 1775, this coast was visited by a most terrible gale. In Harbour Grace and Carbonier all the vessels in the harbours were driven from their anchors; but the inhabitants of the north shore suffered with still greater severity. They even now with signs of dread and horror, show a cove where upwards of two hundred fishing boats perieshed with all their crews.[4]

Carbonier resident Rev Philip Tocque also briefly mentioned the 1775 event in his writings,

...in 1775 Newfoundland was visited by a dreadful storm. The sea rose twenty feet above usual height, which threw on shore hundreds of craft, both small and large, and it is calculated about three hundred persons perished[2]”.

Leo English wrote of the storm of 1775 as it was seen in the Northern Bay area,

The squid came late that summer afternoon, and so abundant and omnivorous that the oldest of seamen were terrified at their voracious-ness, over the horizon to the southeast there spread an orange hued glow. The thin wisp of wind that slowly gathered strength and increasing culminated in the fierce violence of a hurricane. Hatches were battened down, boats lashed and the sails doubled reefed. Ships slopped their chains and strove to escape ... hundreds of boats and over three hundred men perished. The tide had risen twenty feet above its normal level[3]

Cod Fishermen in Newfoundland
In a dispatch by Rear Admiral Robert Duff, Governor of Newfoundland, to the Earl of Dartmouth wrote,
"the fisheries and trade in Newfoundland received a very severe stroke from the violence of a storm of wind ... the damages cannot be less than 30,000 pounds[2]”.

This would be roughly equal to easily a couple of million dollars today.

Historical and modern works describe scenes of horror when the hurricane finally passed, the beaches in Northern Bay were found to be littered with bodies and local residents of the time buried the ill-fated victims in a mass grave on a bluff that faces the beach. For weeks after the storm fishing nets were pulling up the water-logged bodies of the men caught in the open waters. Even years after the storm bones of the fishermen often washed ashore.

These descriptions are pretty clear on the extent and strength of the storm as well as the damages it cost in both lives and property damage.

Once the storm left North Carolina and headed to its final destination, there was no way of warning Newfoundland or anyone else for that matter. In the late eighteenth century there was no unified warning system or even any way to send a message that would arrive before the storm. The residents of Newfoundland were caught completely off guard by this hurricane and likely the reason for so many deaths - mainly English and Irish fishermen but not exclusively.

In the book Haunted Shores by Dale Jarvis an author, storyteller and telegram newspaper columnist writes how even today, residents claim they can hear the dying shouts of the men – known as hollies - and perhaps unbelievably the word holly is even in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

Newfoundland Cod Fishermen

There are other tales associated with this hurricane such as the lone survivor in Northern Bay being a boy found wedged between trees still tied to the helm of the ship he was on and subsequently adopted by a Northern Bay resident, not verified, and likely folklore.

If indeed the hurricane that hit Newfoundland is the same as the one that hit North Carolina then there is even more information available about the hurricane for researchers. As a number of American newspapers wrote about the hurricane they call Independence Hurricane, as it hit during the War of Independence and often given the dubious credit of being the event that turned the tide of the war in favour of the Americans.

Science Behind Hurricanes

The terminology used for tropical storms depends on not only the strength of it but where in the world they started as well. Tropical cyclones that find life off the west coast of Africa in the Atlantic are known as hurricanes and any tropical cyclones that start in the western Pacific and Indian ocean areas are known as typhoons.

A tropical cyclone is a rapidly rotating storm system with a low pressure centre. Which way it is rotating depends on its location - in the northern hemisphere the winds blow counter clockwise and the opposite in the southern hemisphere which is clockwise. This difference is due to the Coriolis effect[5]. Other weather seen with tropical cyclones include a spiral arrangement thunderstorms[8] that can cause flooding, strong winds and, as seen in the Hurricane of Newfoundland in 1775, storm surges.

Canada has seen some extreme and fantastical weather, but Canadian low weather fronts and storm systems are a fight between warm and cold air, this is not the case for tropical cyclones which are fuelled by a completely different process. These storms start or begin to form almost exclusively over large-sized tropical bodies of water and using a process involving changing water to vapour and back to liquid is how they feed themselves and grow.

Hurrican Formation

Naturally, more than just warm oceans are needed to create a tropical cyclone. It also needs warm moist tropical air, specific wind conditions such as little to no change in wind speed between the upper troposphere and surface, a pre-existing disturbance such as a low pressure area and it can't be too close, nor to far from the equator as the Coriolis force is needed to generate the spin and there is little of it near or away from the equator[6].

Even if all these conditions are present it does not mean that a tropical cyclone is guaranteed to happen. Thus the challenge presented to weather forecasters in predicting these storms. Tropical cyclones are born in moist tropical air and as such can form in a number of locations including the Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. There are four stages to the life of a tropical cyclone – a tropical disturbance breeds a tropical depression which leads to a tropical storm and if it gains enough strength it becomes a hurricane (or typhoon).

Hurricanes have four life stages or cycles to understand their growth and appearance you need to understand these four stages:

It all starts with warm moist tropical air in warmer waters where roughly every five days a wave of low pressure moves through this mass of air and starts the formation of a system of thunderstorms with clouds and showers. If it can hold for twenty-four hours it is officially the first stage of a hurricane life, a tropical disturbance.

If this disturbance develops air circulation, particularly a closed system, it will be known as a tropical depression so long as it can sustain winds of thirty-eight mph for a minute or more. This air circulation combined with the Coriolis effect is what starts the swirling motion you see on weather radar maps.

If the thunderstorms from stage one are strong enough air pressure drops and this low pressure attracts warm moist air from the surface of the ocean it is forming on and feeds the growing storm, causing the winds to increase, an eye to form (though not always) and it is safe to say that at this stage, the national hurricane center will have to come up with a name for it, as it is now a tropical storm and at the third stage of its life.

Cross section of a hurricane

While the storm is growing it is feeding itself with the heat from the moisture of the storms and the ocean's surface, the steady process of converting moisture into vapour and back to a liquid provide the heat energy the storm needs to grow in wind strength[6]. As the storm is worked up to a wind speed of at least 74 mph it is considered to be a hurricane, though more often than not the winds of hurricanes are stronger than the 74 mph requirement.

This is why hurricanes start in warm tropical locations and start to die out in colder locations, they draw their power from the warm moist air and waters. Without the warmth, the hurricane could not grow into the devastating force they can become[5].

When and Where

Tropical cyclones, because they can not be too close to the equator and they can not be too far from the equator tend to form in a band of latitudes. There are seven basins that a basic tropical cyclone can 'grow in', they are each in their own location and have their own times of year when active..

The basins include one basin in North Atlantic Ocean, three basins in the Pacific Ocean and three more in the Indian Ocean. Varying other smaller bodies of water are also included in some of these basins, such the northern area of the Indian Ocean includes Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.

Hurricane Basins

North America's eastern seaboard seems to take the brunt of hurricane type weather, as the west coast rarely gets hit with typhoons but with that said, West Pacific typhoons can travel and undergo a transition that can make them note worthy storms, it just does not happen often.

North Atlantic born tropical cyclones occur primarily during the summer and fall months, ending by November usually, since it is usually too chilly for hurricanes to develop. In the eastern North Pacific, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico storm season is May into December. These seasons (two maybe three basins) make up nearly 99 percent of all hurricanes in any year

Rating Hurricanes

Once the tropical storm reaches hurricane status it can then further be categorized according the Saffir-Simpson scale.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale created by Herbert Saffir and Dr. Robert Simpson during the early 1970s with the goal to provide estimates of potential threats and damage (such as flooding and property damage) by breaking down the hurricane into five categories based on barometric pressure, storm surge and wind speeds. A breakdown of the categories:[7]

A category 1 storm with winds no stronger than 95 mph and a storm surge of four to five feet. Damage expected to be minimal and risk of flooding is low. Shrubbery is at most risk.

A class 2 storm with winds up to 100 mph with six to eight foot storm surges. Damage is expected to be heavier in particular with poorly constructed building, boats not properly anchored or mobile homes. The shrubbery will suffer the heaviest damage. Considerably higher risk of flooding of roads and homes.

A category 3 storm is given the heading extensive as this is where we start to see more damage to not just flora but mobile homes and poorly constructed building will likely be destroyed. Damage to well constructed homes will include windows, roofs and doors. High likelihood of flooding four to six hours before the storm hits, particularly in the low lying areas which may consider evacuations. Winds blow up to 140 mph and storm surges can be up to twelve feet high.

Storm Surge

A class 4 storm will see winds blow as strong as 155 mph with storm surges up to eighteen feet. There will be extensive damage to buildings, well-built or not, including doors, roofs and windows. Higher risk of complete failure with smaller home roofs. Flooding is almost a guarantee and evacuations upwards of ten kilometres inland.

Finally a category 5 storms are known to be catastrophic with winds moving at speeds that are greater than 155 mph and surges higher than eighteen feet. Flora, fauna, buildings, roads and coastal areas can expect severe damage to property and roads, flooding and authorities may evacuated people as far as fifteen kilometres inland.

Tracking Hurricanes

Meteorologists use to rely on tropical island weather reports and ships as they reported conditions at sea, it was incredibly difficult to determine or predict where and when tropical storms were brewing and as such meteorologists had to rely mainly on local weather changes to predict storms. Tracking hurricanes, even with today's technology, involves many variables and as such it is an evolving science always changing how it tracks storms based on current understanding. Tropical cyclones and systems are constantly on the move and sometimes unpredictably so; a variety of methods are employed including aircraft, satellites and radar, as well as observations from other countries closer to the storm. Each providing its own unique look.

Hurrican Daniel

It wasn't until the 1960s that satellite technology grew to a point where they could be used in weather forecasts[5]. I use the term grew politely, satellites of the 1960s (or 70s, 80s and even 90s) are quite primitive when compared to the new generation of satellites. But regardless how primitive they were, they did offer meteorologists a greater understanding of these ocean based storms.

The images provided by satellites were sequenced together and gave a view of the storm in motion, which helped greatly with predicting its path and where it may make landfall. This gave countries the ability to forewarn their people of a bad one and allow them time to get to somewhere safer.

Doppler radar detected rain fall with a range of two hundred to two hundred and fifty mile radius. A fair amount of information can be gleaned from just rainfall statistics. Not only will it provide an estimate of how much rain but also it's intensity, estimates of wind speed can be drawn from the picture it depicts of the rain bands in the hurricane and from its center and the movement can be tracked as well.

As early as World War II aircraft have flown into hurricanes to gather data including location, intensity, wind direction and the like[6]. Today these aircraft are still active, but other technology has grown as well and gadgets have replaced the aircrafts role, but aircraft are still used to physically observe conditions at one thousand to ten thousand feet which is the area of the storm that would affect coastlines and homes.

Floods After the Hurricane

Observing weather has been the method longest used and in many ways is the most unreliable. In 1775, the only method of predicting weather would have watched local conditions and maybe having information on weather across the oceans from six months ago. For fishing communities like Newfoundland this was a recipe for disaster as shown in the 1775 hurricane.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the United States formally installed a national hurricane warning system – that consisted of mainly overseas stations. While technology has improved greatly and allows for instant communication with a phone, observations and information gathering today are done with buoys. Buoys also provide information for what is going on during a hurricane allowing meteorologists an even deeper understanding of hurricanes and tropical storms.

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Bibliography

  1. Ricardo Garcia-Herrera, Luis Gimeno, Pedro Ribera and Emiliano Hernandez "New records of Atlantic hurricanes from Spanish documentary sources." Archivo General de Indias (AGI) General Archive of the Indies. 18/09/2014 <Web >
  2. Deanna Stokes Sullivan "The Forgotten Storm." The Telegram Newspaper. 20/09/2014 <Web >
  3. Alan Ruffman "The Multidisciplinary Rediscovery and Tracking of The Great Newfoundland and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon Hurricane of September 1775." Northern Mariner. 19/09/2014 <Web >
  4. Rev Lewis Amadeus Anspach History of the Island of Newfoundland. London: T and J Allman, 1819.
  5. "Human Activity and Hurricanes." BBC. 20/09/2014 <Web >
  6. "Hurricanes." Environment Canada. 20/09/2014 <Web >
  7. "Genesis of Hurricanes." Hurricane Science. 20/09/2014 <Web >
  8. "Tropical Storms." Weather Encyclopedia. 19/09/2014 <Web >
  9. "1775 Hurricane Telegram Article." Newfoundlands Grand Banks Genealogy Website. 20/09/2014 <Web >
  10. "Hurricanes." Whole Woods Oceanographic. 22/09/2014 <Web >

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