Tuesday, February 02, 2016

40th Anniversary of the Groundhog Day Gale of 1976 - Retrospective Part Two

Forecasting has come a long way since 1976 Groundhog Day Storm

Eric Bourque

“Weather forecasting has advanced tremendously since then,” says Bob Robichaud. “The chances of being caught off guard by something like that are quite low.”

Which is not to suggest we couldn’t get another storm like it, he says, but forecasters would be better able to see it coming now than they were in 1976.

“We’d have a good idea of that at least a couple of days ahead of time,” he says.

And while the Groundhog Day storm wasn’t a hurricane – the Atlantic hurricane season is June 1 to Dec. 1 – Robichaud notes that winter storms can be just as powerful.
“It’s not that unusual to get hurricane-force winds from a winter storm,” says Robichaud. “This Groundhog Day storm was kind of an extreme example of that.”

Part of the legacy of the Groundhog Day storm is the storm surge warning program forecasters use. Warnings are issued if water levels are expected to reach a certain threshold.

That the 1976 storm coincided with very high tides made it even more damaging.

Despite the fury of that wind on Feb. 2 four decades ago, people who remember the storm may also recall the sun was shining, which is not uncommon with this kind of intense storm, Robichaud says.

“You have what we call a dry slot,” he says. “You can get some incredibly strong winds, and actually there’s a layer of dry air that wraps around the centre of the storm, so that dry air can come up and actually clear the skies right out so you can see the sun.”

Had the Groundhog Day storm happened on another day, who knows what people would be calling it now. Robichaud notes that the named storms of the hurricane season tend to get lots of attention, as forecasters track their progress and the media report on them.

A more recent example of a bad storm often referred to by name, even though it wasn’t a hurricane, was the big blizzard of February 2004. Happening five months after hurricane Juan, the storm was dubbed White Juan.

As for the Groundhog Day gale of ‘76 the storm arrived unannounced and with no official moniker, but it quickly made a name for itself.

Shelburne County during the Groundhog Day Storm of 1976: 'It was wild'

Amy Woolvett

Looking back on how Shelburne County was impacted

SHELBURNE – “T’was a winter’s wind that arrived unannounced and…unexpected,” reads a February 1976 article in the Shelburne County Coast Guard after the infamous Groundhog Day storm that wreaked havoc and left half of the province in darkness.

“It was a warm day,” recalls the current mayor of Clark’s Harbour, Leigh Stoddart.  “I was working and the wind it kept picking up, and picking up and picking up.”

Fishermen went running to get their boats secure as the waves picked up to 20 feet and the wind blew to 90 knots.

“It was wild,” he said.  “Anything not secured down was flying everywhere.”

In Shelburne, when the gale was at it’s height, three deep-sea fishing vessels fought their way through the waves and into Shelburne Harbour, thankful to make it to shore. It was reported that many experienced fishermen called the storm the worst they had ever seen.

“Any man that isn’t frightened in a gale like that hasn’t got a working imagination,” one fisherman had said.

The storm saw boats tossed by the wild seas and the gale force winds. A 200-foot barge broke loose from a wharf and in Clark’s Harbour a 65-foot longliner, the Heidi Marlene, sunk at the wharf.
Wilson’s Furniture store in Barrington Passage couldn’t stock enough candles on their shelves during the four-day power outage that had plunged the county in darkness. In the store itself, employees were dressed in hats, coats and scarves as they waited on customers in the cold.

Neighbours taking care of neighbours

The storm had brought out the best in people, as they reached out to neighbours to make sure they were okay during the power loss. Some opened their homes to others.

People with the means to cook meals provided to those who had none.

“It does not seem likely that a more urban area with less independent or resourceful people could have managed such an emergency with equal good humour and efficiency,” reported the Coast Guard newspaper.

Lockeport was another area that saw a lot of damage. A new building at Peirce Fisheries was blown into the harbor, a section of the roof of the high school was ripped off and windows at the Irving station were smashed by the force of the wind.

Bertram Bower had left her home with her family shortly after the power went out.  With only a hot air furnace, she sought shelter with friends. It was while she was gone that her family received the devastating news that their home had been destroyed by fire.

 “Not many of us are going to soon forget the first week in February, 1976,” wrote the Coastguard.  “Some of us have more reasons than others to remember.”

40th Anniversary of the Groundhog Day Gale of 1976 - Retrospective Part One


This loop shows the surface low track during the Great Storm Surge Flood of February 2, 1976.  Model forecast run was created by Jeff Auger and Sean Birkel of the University of Maine at Orono.

While few people likely remember the prognostication of the groundhog 40 years ago today, many residents along the Maine coast and in the inland city of Bangor, still remember what was to be a most unusual Groundhog Day, 40 years ago today, February 2, 1976.

The weather pattern was very stormy.  Low pressure had developed off the mid-Atlantic coast overnight and had moved rapidly northeastward to extreme southwestern Maine by early in the morning.  As the storm moved north-northeastward, it intensified rapidly causing very strong southerly winds to develop along Mid- and Downeast-coast of Maine. These strong winds continued during the morning hours as the storm tracked northward through western Maine.  The strong southerly winds caused ocean water to begin to pile up along the coast of Maine from Brunswick to Eastport, and sent a historic storm surge up the Penobscot River and into the city of Bangor.

For residents in the city of Bangor, while the day started out stormy with high winds and heavy rain, nobody had any idea of the dramatic events that were about to unfold.  Within hours the city would be hit hard by the highly unusual storm surge as it moved rapidly up the Penobscot River.  Due to the funneling effects of the Penobscot River, the surge grew as it approached the unsuspecting city of Bangor.

The flood waters rose rapidly as they reached downtown Bangor shortly after 11 am, reportedly flooding sections of the downtown area to a depth of 12 feet within 15 minutes.  With water rising at a rate of about 10 inches per minute, residents could do little to escape the frigid waters.  Many residents became trapped in their cars and in buildings.  Several workers who saw the rapidly rising water tried to rescue their vehicles from parking lots in the area, only to become trapped as their cars began to float.  Eventually, the cars began to sink and the occupants were forced to climb onto rooftops to await help.  In one case, a lady was forced to hop from car-rooftop to rooftop as successive cars sunk in the icy-cold waters.  Many people watched as, within 30 minutes, about 200 cars fell victim to the surge and disappeared into the rising flood waters.  Fortunately, thanks the heroic actions of some of the residents in the area, no one died in the storm.  However, many of the cars submerged in the flood waters were catastrophically damaged.  The surge also flooded the basements and lower floors of numerous buildings in the area, damaging bank vaults, electrical equipment and causing several fires.

Along the Maine coast, a storm surge of 3 to 5 feet combined with high winds and large waves to cause numerous problems.  In Southwest Harbor, the Coast Guard recorded a wind of 115 miles per hour during the morning.  High winds caused considerable damage to structures along the Downeast coast; some roofs were torn from buildings.  In addition to the surge, wind-driven waves estimated at 14 feet high damaged structures along the coast, some of which slid into the ocean
before being ripped apart by the pounding surf.

In Searsport, a large Japanese freighter that was anchored offshore awaiting a load of french fries, dragged its anchor and washed aground.  The freighter spent weeks awaiting a sufficiently high tide before it could be freed to return to the ocean.

The Bangor flood of February 2, 1976 was the result of several factors which happened to coincide on that date.  First, the sun, moon, and earth were generally in alignment, causing a very high astronomical tide.  Second, the extremely intense low pressure center that tracked west of the Penobscot River caused the very strong southerly winds to develop over the Penobscot Bay.  Third, the wind driven storm surge occurred near the time of high tide.  And fourth, the funneling effects of the Penobscot Bay and River allowed the surge to move up the river and grow as it headed toward the city of Bangor.  In addition, the heavy rain which accompanied the storm also likely contributed to the flood water.

While there is nothing that could prevent this extremely rare event from happening again, much more is known about storm surges than was known 30 years ago.  In fact, National Weather Service forecasters now have access to storm surge models to help predict the extent of flooding from coastal storms.  In addition, although the surge 40 years ago was not caused by a hurricane, the National
Weather Services Hurricane Storm Surge Model is now used to map areas flooded by storm surges caused by hurricanes.

Where along the Maine coast do these hurricane storm surge models show the greatest threat of surges to be?  In case you couldn't guess, in and around the inland city of Bangor!

John Jensenius