Monday, October 29, 2012

NYC Hurricane History: A Ruinous Gale

In the wave of Hurricane Sandy madness that's spreading through New York City as well as through my Facebook newsfeed, my cousin posted a link to an article, The Big One by Aaron Naparstek, which is about how NYC is due for a major hurricane, and the conditions that make it particularly susceptible to serious damage, should one occur. What I found most interesting (besides the parts that made me think "Uh oh! Am I about to witness the end of New York as we know it?") were the references to previous severe storms that had hit the area, particularly the 1821 storm that saw sea levels rise 13 feet in an hour, the "Long Island Express" of 1938, and the 1893 hurricane that flooded parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

My ancestors were living in the greater New York area* during the latter two storms, and, as the wind howled outside my windows, I couldn't stop myself from doing a little research into history's hurricanes. I'll focus on the 1893 storm in this post, and try to write about the 1938 storm if our power holds out.

"A Ruinous Gale"

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 August 1893

In the afternoon of 24 August 1893, the day after Long Island was hit by a major storm, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted 5 columns to the storm on the front page, and continued the article with 2 more columns on page 8. The article begins by calling Brooklyn "remarkably lucky" and describing the damage as consisting "mainly in the disfiguration of the fine streets of the town by the destruction of shade trees." It then goes on to devote 7 entire columns to describing damage rather more extensive than the loss of shade trees!

It was clear that New York took a rather different approach to storms then than it does now. When the rain began at 8:00 pm, "wise persons who had read the latest weather forecasts were prepared for the trouble."Still, despite the advance warning, a "giant maple fell on the line of the Fifth avenue elevated road as a train passed." It seems that shutting down public transportation the day before the storm is not a century-old practice!

Trees fell pretty extensively, and the Eagle reported the next morning that 360 were down. It also reported their locations, and being cooped up in my apartment with nowhere to go, I took the opportunity to map them using Google maps. Every blue marker on this map is a tree that fell in "down town" Brooklyn, as reported to the Eagle by the superintendent of streets.

View Trees Felled in the "Ruinous Gale" of 23 August 1893 in a larger map

(No downed trees are represented in South Brooklyn, where much of my family lived. Either it was not considered "down town," and so downed trees there weren't included, or it didn't have the quantity of trees that other neighborhoods in the city did, and so there were none to fall.)

Beyond the trees being uprooted, roofs were ripped off of houses throughout the city. The family of Mr. Henry Brandt at the corner of York and Gold streets were asleep in their beds when the roof was lifted off of their house and then dropped back on it, throwing debris into their home and trapping them on the second floor. They had to escape through a ladder out the back window. Five houses on Ryerson St. (numbers 121, 123, 125, 127, and 129) lost their tin roofs to the storm.

Flooding was extensive, too:
  • Around the corner of Ashford and Fulton streets "the thoroughfares were flooded for two blocks around . . . The water was easily four feet deep at that point . . . the rare picture in a city thoroughfare, was that of a small boy in bathing trunks swimming from curb to curb just at the Ashford and Fulton street crossing. The boy may not have been swimming, but he was truly enough in bathing costume and he simulated natatorial progression. A crowd watched him and cheered him in his efforts."
  • "Water poured in torrents along Atlantic avenue and Fulton street, flooding basements and cellars and in some instances flooding stores and dwellings as far as the first story."
  • "In the block of houses on Rockaway avenue, between Marion and McDougall streets, six basements were flooded and in one house the small furniture in the front room was floating."

The article further described extensive damage along the beaches near Coney Island, saying that "the storm at Coney Island was the most violent ever experienced since the island became a summer resort." The Eagle relates the harrowing stories of people working in "bathing houses, photograph galleries, beer saloons, etc." on the beach, who lost everything or risked their lives trying to save what they could. Perhaps most disturbing is what happened to the "Bolivian Indian Village" "exhibit":
The Bolivian Indian Village, at the end of Tilyou's walk, was swept completely out of existence. All the Indians were asleep in the native huts in which they live. They were awakened by the water dashing over them and panic stricken with fright, howled dismally. One big wave came in and knocked the whole foundation out from under the place and the roof fell in. The falling timbers struck a big heavy pole which had been used by one of the natives named Samson in exhibiting feats of strength. The pole fell over on one of the frail huts in which three indians were sleeping, injuring them quite badly and pinning them down under the debris. Their cries attracted the attention of W.H. Yost, J.C. Donnelly and T.J. Ornsbee, who were assisting the work of rescue and the three alleged aborigines were hauled from under the wreck of their hut and the big pole, half choked with salt water and nearly scared to death. 

According to Ask Mr. Coney Island, "The extent of injuries to the indians is unknown and the show did not reopen."

Although I know that last year Hurricane Irene cause serious damage to upstate farmers, one complaint that NYC and Long Island won't likely have after today's storm is the condition of the crops. In 1893, it was reported that "the fruit crop is practically ruined and the corn, which withstood the drought, is leveled to the ground and in many places torn up by the roots. The situation of the farmers is thus made particularly distressing."

As I read through the article, I hoped to come across some descriptions of the situations of the actual neighborhoods my family were living in, but I had no such luck. I saw pictures of Red Hook (2012) flooding by early this afternoon, so I'm sure that my South Brooklyn (1893) ancestors had to contend with the same. Between that, and reading that Brooklynites had spent the night of 23 August 1893 "listening all night to the beating of the rain on roofs and windows; they had heard the howling of the gale and the crash of falling trees and their curiosity was stimulated," I was able to begin to imagine my ancestors living through that storm, as I was living through this one.

*My family were living in Brooklyn, which is New York City now, but wasn't then.

1 comment:

Claudia said...

Great post, especially the linked article from 2005.