When the weather is bad…

I was evacuated from the Maryland State Archives during a 5.8 earthquake on Tuesday. I had to go back to the Archives on Thursday to pick up my belongings from the locker, and then return home to tornado warnings. As I write this from my home in Delaware, I am waiting for the worst of Hurricane Irene to arrive and praying for it to move past quickly.

Some week.

Thinking about the past, I wonder what extreme weather may have affected my ancestors’ lives. The website GenDisasters: Events That Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives collects and compiles weather and accident-related events of the past.

Back in August 1884, an earthquake was felt from Baltimore up to Maine. Certainly my ancestors in the counties surrounding Albany, New York, felt it. According to the newspaper report transcribed on the GenDisasters site,

Last Sunday afternoon there was an earthquake shock in this country, which was felt as far south as Washington and as far north a Maine, and in the intervening territory.  In Baltimore the sensation was as a wavy tremor.  It was not near as pronounced as elsewhere, but was sufficient, in a number of cases, to arouse people form their afternoon naps, crack plaster, slam doors and toss furniture about.  From other parts of Maryland there are reports of similar character.  No one was hurt but the shock occasioned considerable excitement. … [1]

More recently, in September 1944, there was another hurricane wreaked havoc up and down the Atlantic coast. Among the news reported on GenDisasters:

Winds up to ninety miles an hour battering the Atlantic Coast last night as a severe hurricane sped toward New England forced many seaside residents to flee for safety, dashed a 250-foot freighter upon the shore and caused widespread damage.

The ninety-mile-an-hour reading was recorded at the Coast Guard station at Manasquan, N. J., about eight miles south of the resort city of Asbury Park. Winds as high as 83 miles an hour were recorded earlier on the Virginia coast.

Water five to six feet deep, all from rain, blocked highways in the vicinity of Hicksville, a Long Island community in an area hard hit by the famous hurricane of 1938. …

The Homestead restaurant on the Ocean Grove, N. J. boardwalk near Asbury Park, was washed into the sea. The restaurant had a capacity of 300 persons, but was believed to have been unoccupied when it was destroyed.

A pier was reported washed out at Asbury Park, but details were unavailable.

Many residents of Fire Island, off Long Island’s south shore fled their homes Wednesday. Four large Long Island airplane plants halted operations last night. …

Gov. LEVERETT SALTONSTALL of Massachusetts broadcast an appeal to shore dwellers to leave their homes for safer places and Rhode Island state police issued a similar warning.

Two vessels described as coal barges ran aground at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and were being battered by a severe gale. Whether crews were aboard was undetermined.

Power and telephone lines were downed in some areas.

In Atlantic City, N. J., the weather bureau reported wind velocity of 65 miles an hour. A report stated Atlantic City’s famous Steel Pier was split in half by mountainous waves, the Heinz Pier had been washed away and parts of the million dollar pier have been destroyed.[2]

The reports sound familiar on both accounts to what I have been listening to over the last five days.

The GenDisasters website can be browsed by disaster, by state, or by year. Within in each state, you can browse by disaster, to find, for example, an earthquake in Maryland or a hurricane in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, you cannot browse each state by town or county–which would be an easier way to locate information relevant to a particular area–or browse each state by year. When browsing the results also do not appear in any chronological order by disaster, so you often have to move through dozens of pages of disasters in no particular order.

There is a Google search box that can be used to search for specific place names or surnames. This can ease the search process significantly.

GenDisasters is a unique site. No other single site offers this sort of information for locations around the United States. The only other way to locate this information (and not a bad idea for thorough researchers) is to manually search through historic newspaper collections. Using GenDisasters, this process can be significantly shortened.

SOURCES:

[1] Jenni Lanham, “East Coast Earthquake, Aug 1884,” on GenDisasters: Events That Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives, posted 27 Dec 2009 (http://www3.gendisasters.com/ : accessed 27 Aug 2011).

[2] Stu Beitler, “East Coast, VA, DE, NJ, NY, MA, RI, CT  Hurricane,  Sept 1944,” on GenDisasters: Events That Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives, posted 31 Jul 2008 (http://www3.gendisasters.com/ : accessed 27 Aug 2011).

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