Extreme weather

If you are reading this on the date of publication, that means it’s Feb. 20, which is a big day for my family, for it was on this date, Febr. 20, 1919, exactly 100 years ago, that my mother, Esther, was born. And it was my dear mother who instilled in me my love of nature, and, through that, I discovered light and landscape, leading to my passion for weather.

By the time my mother was 20, in 1939, a number of high-impact, national-news-making weather events had occurred. But the thing is, by the time mom was 20, television was still about 15 years away. So you’d hear about some weather calamity on the radio and read about it in the paper, but that was about it. So, with that said, allow me to share with you some of the extreme weather events back when mom was growing up.

We’ll start in 1925, when mom was six. That’s the year that the deadliest tornado in our nation’s history, known as the Tri-State Tornado, exacted a ghastly toll, as it obliterated towns along its 219 mile path from southeast Missouri, through southern Illinois, and into southern Indiana. It remains the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, with 695 lives lost.

Then, three years later, when mom was nine, in 1928, the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, hit Florida. It’s known as the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane.  Many of the thousands who perished, drowned in a storm surge from the lake itself when a dike gave way, due to the water being pushed against it by screaming northerly winds. (The deadliest hurricane in U.S. history remains the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which claimed between 6,000 and 8,000 lives.)

Mom moved from childhood to her teens in the 1930s, and the “weather hits” kept on coming. All you have to do is say, “1930s,” and many people automatically think, “Dust Bowl.” It was the impetus for a mass migration westward, and served as the basis for John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Photos of the giant advancing black clouds of dust are astonishing, and can be viewed at the National Weather Service Historical website. For dust storm photos, go to:


Mom was still in her teens when two dreadful hurricanes, still talked about today, struck the U.S., one in the Florida Keys, and one right here in New England.

A hurricane is said to be “intense” when its central pressure is very low. When this occurs, the wind speed in the ring of thunderstorms surrounding the eye, known as the eye wall, are extremely strong. Mom was 16 when the most intense hurricane on record blasted the Florida Keys, on Labor Day of 1935. Wind gusts approached 200 mph, and killed hundreds, including many World War I veterans who were working on Henry Flagler’s Rail Line, which was destroyed by the storm, and never rebuilt. A rescue train was sent, but it was too late, and the train was swept off the tracks by the storm surge. The pressure measured in the eye of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, remains the lowest pressure ever measured in the U.S. in a landfalling hurricane, 26.34 inches. If you have a wall barometer, go look at its scale. That needle would have to go all the way around again!

The other still-talked-about-today hurricane occurred when mom was 19, and this time it was New England’s turn. On the 21st of September 1938, New England’s worst hurricane in the modern record came charging up the coast. It raced into New England, after crossing Long Island, with a forward speed of at least 60 mph. Since the eye first crossed Long Island, the storm is known as The Long Island Express. The storm sped from coastal North Carolina, to Long Island in only six hours. Official Weather Bureau forecasts had the hurricane remaining out to sea. It has been documented that a junior forecaster, Charles Pierce, made the case that the storm would come ashore. However, he was overruled by his superiors, so the official forecast was, “out to sea.” The death toll was dreadful: as more than 600 people were killed, many by drowning in the sudden storm surge. The coastal impacts were calamitous, with thousands of structures destroyed by storm surge. An astonishing wind gust of 186 mph was recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory, south of Boston. And incredible damage occurred in the forests of New England. More than 2 BILLION trees were felled!

It had been so long since New England had experienced a severe hurricane, that some said, “New England doesn’t get hurricanes!”

So happy 100, Mom, and know that the weather events I wrote about, which all occurred before you were 20, are still shown in “top 10 weather disaster” shows today.

Now that’s some extreme weather!

Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been chief meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at tshapiro@wagmtv.com.

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