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1911 saw some dramatic storms

Published September 12. 2011 08:28AM

The drastic weather we've seen in many parts of the nation this year has some newscasters and weather officials using terms like "once-in-a-lifetime" and "never-before-seen." A century ago, the region found itself in the grips of a late-summer drought that didn't break until a deluge in late August brought relief and replenished water supplies.

A report in the Tamaqua Courier said the rain fell "in torrents" over a 24-hour period, flooding cellars with "dirt and muck" and washing out roadbeds. One road was almost completely blocked by two feet of the muck and coal dirt that washed down from the banks over the cribbing (the framework used to support a mine).

"A force of men and teams were put to work this morning cleaning up the dirt," a reporter stated.

One positive outcome was that the storm refilled water supplies including the Owl Creek reservoir, which was nearly empty due to the drought. The heavy rains also meant more work for maintenance workers. The Courier reported that water officials were delighted to see the drought end but "the filling of the reservoir greatly retards the work of cleaning the bottom of the dam of rock and muck."

At about the same time, South Carolina was hit with a more dangerous storm system, one that ended up leaving 17 dead.

In the early days of meteorology, storms were named with a latitude/longitude because names were difficult to remember and to communicate. It was during World War II that a military meteorologist working in the Pacific began to use women's names for storms since that made it much more easier to communicate. The National Hurricane Center adopted that method in 1953 for use on storms originating in the Atlantic Ocean.

The 1911 Atlantic hurricane season was quite a calm one, with only six known tropical cyclones forming in the Atlantic during the summer and fall. The third storm that developed on Aug. 23 slowly attained hurricane status, the center passing inland a few miles south of Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 28.

After making landfall, it rapidly deteriorated into a tropical storm but, before dissipating, it walloped Savannah and Charleston, washing out roads and railroads and destroying crops and livestock. In Charleston, winds were estimated at 106 mph and the storm raged for more than 36 hours.

The winds and the high tides left a "confused mass of wrecked vessels and damaged wharfs," according to one forecaster in Charleston. Six navy torpedo boats were ripped from their moorings and blown ashore. Property damage in Charleston was estimated at $1 million ($23.5 million in today's dollars).

Several days later a Tamaqua Courier writer warned of the risk of building too close to the shoreline.

"Sand bars and keys along the Gulf and South Atlantic coast leave a record legible to scientists showing the reach of the historic storms of past centuries," he stated. "Many a village has grown up on sands that are simply a weather record, sure sooner or later to feel again the grip of the tawny tiger of the tropics."

He pointed to a hurricane that hit Mobile in 1906, when the wind drove water from the harbor a half mile up into the town, undermining houses and accounting for a large part of the $5 million in losses.

"After any calamity, the public naturally inquires what lessons can be learned and how the tragedy can be averted another time," he stated, "but the deadly grips of these hurricanes is too logical to be wholly guarded against.

"The blast passes over structures that are relatively flimsy, and crushes others of the most substantial construction. Fortunately, such a disaster is rare enough so that no generation sees it twice in one place."

In times of calamity, the writer felt it was time for fellow Americans to step up.

"When the blow falls, the hand of public charity should spring forth to those in need with glad alacrity," he said.

In mid-September of 1911, Pittsburgh was hit with a sudden torrent of rain that transformed waterways into "raging torrents." The intensity of that storm left some streets flooded with 12 feet of water, not unlike the effects suffered last month after several sudden storms in a short period flooded Pittsburgh streets, trapping a number of people in their cars, including one Tamaqua native and her children.

In one dramatic rescue in that storm 100 years ago, firemen lashed their ladders together to span the water and save 25 people marooned in a block of homes. At the Spang and Chalfant Steel Company, workers hung to rafters in one building for several hours until they were rescued by boat.

One reporter summed up the power of the 1911 deluge.

"Cars loaded with steel and coke were tossed about like corks and railway tracks were torn up," he said.

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