Great Lakes storm of 1913 a reminder of loss
Written by ANDREW KRIETZ, The Grand Rapids Press   
Sunday, 17 November 2013 07:52

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — This month marks a century since the Great Lakes storm of 1913 unleashed a fury that has since gone unmatched.

Its ferocity earned it the nickname "White Hurricane" from forecasters and historians alike. It sent a dozen ships to their watery graves.

In 1913 dollars, the storm's economic impact tallied at least $5 million. Today, that would have equated to at least $117 million.

But the biggest repercussion struck the heart of the region: More than 250 people lost their lives, forever changing the conversation on weather forecasting and how to make a buck on the open lakes.

"The numbers tell the story," said Russ Green, deputy superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena.

"It's something that is devastating beyond our comprehension until it happens," he told The Grand Rapids Press ( http://bit.ly/1gFVy3k ).

The perfect combination of elements came together at the right moment to create the sprawling disaster for mariners, said Jim Keysor, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gaylord.

On Nov. 6, 1913, forecasters at the Weather Bureau tracked a low pressure system dropping from Canada into the upper Great Lakes. Another area of low pressure hundreds of miles away in the south pushed its way north, with its crosshairs targeted on Lake Huron.

"The (Weather Bureau) had basic means of observations at the time . The network was pretty sparse and limited compared to today," he said.

Forecasters at least had somewhat of an idea of what was to come. They raised storm warning flags along Lake Superior's coastlines, and captains' weather reports made a mention of brisk winds — a far cry from severe weather warnings and immediate, mobile weather reports available today.

The Canadian system whipped up waves and winds that measured more than 60 mph over northern Lake Michigan and western Lake Superior, but the weather slowly calmed as it moved away from the region on Nov. 8, Keysor said.

It was bad timing.

"It's November and late in the season . there's a lot of money at stake in getting your vessel out to sea," Green said. "There was a lot of pressure, and captains were wanting to move their cargo."

The southern storm intensified upon its approach to the Great Lakes as it absorbed the Canadian system, Keysor said. All the while, captains allowed their ships to traverse through the Detroit and the St. Clair rivers.

"The lull probably played into the decision of captains and a number of ships of going back out," he said. "Unfortunately, that was a very poor decision."

Back then, the Weather Bureau issued twice-daily forecasts. Captains received a forecast upon leaving port but should a storm explode in strength later in the day, they'd be caught off-guard without wireless communications.

And they were.

The storm strengthened on Nov. 9 with winds gusting up to a Category 2 hurricane, Keysor said. According to computer simulations of the storm, 10-foot waves on Lake Huron that morning built to 32-foot monsters by 10 p.m.

Some 20-foot waves likely were felt along the Lake Michigan shoreline, with up to 2 feet of snow in Cleveland.

"It was a significant storm for everyone on the Great Lakes," Keysor said. "You had wind gusts in West Michigan that were 50-60 mph, trees down, power outages, communications down."

The year 1913 had been the best year on record in regard to shipping on the Great Lakes, whether crews were transporting wheat from Milwaukee or iron ore from the Upper Peninsula, Green said.

A handful of those freighters carried crews of more than 20 people, all of whom perished when their ships sunk. Only some of those lost were recovered when their frozen bodies washed ashore.

The Grand Rapids Herald on Nov. 18, 1913, reported many captains ignored warnings about the storm. At the same time, Keysor said it was extremely difficult to predict how strong the storm would be and where it would hit given the day's technology.

When forecasters finally understood what was happening, they were too late and captains wouldn't get the message.

The advent of radar, satellite imagery and enhanced forecasting tools allows scientists today to get a better handle on Mother Nature, preventing a similar disaster now, Keysor said.

"There really was an infused emphasis to have a more frequent update, to go out and see storms further to get advance warning," he said. "You're dealing with the huge amount of loss of life with the storm of 1913. We'll likely never see that again."

___

Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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