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100th Anniversary: Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913 deadliest winter storm in northern Ohio history

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CLEVELAND - It was the biggest, meanest, deadliest winter storm to affect northern Ohio and the Great Lakes -- and you've probably never heard about it.

Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Great Lakes White Hurricane of 1913. It hit between Nov. 7 and Nov. 10 that year. This storm is considered by most historians to be the strongest and deadliest storm to ever strike the Great Lakes.

Between Nov. 7 and Nov. 10, 1913, hurricane force winds, blizzard conditions and 35-foot waves battered the Great Lakes. More than 250 people lost their lives with 12 major shipwrecks. Cleveland set its record daily snowfall during the storm, a record that still stands today.

Unseasonably warm conditions settled in across the Great Lakes on Nov. 7. Cleveland hit a high on that day of 66 degrees. But a sharp cold front was pushing its way into Lake Superior. This Alberta Clipper-like system was pulling in some very cold air for early November and some very gusty winds behind it. This system would prove to be a major player in the storm that was to come.

The next day, this low pressure system and cold front began to stall as it moved across Ohio into Western Pennsylvania. At the same time, another low pressure center was forming along the cold front across the Southern Appalachians. This secondary low would then begin to move north along the stalled front. The low dragged lots of moisture with it as it moved north to merge with the stalled out Clipper low over Washington DC.

As the two lows merged, they formed what weather folk call a "Meteorological Bomb." That is: the system strengthened explosively! The now-major winter storm then tracked northwest to near Erie, Pennsylvania during the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 9. This begins the deadliest portion of the storm now known as the White Hurricane.

By 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, winds and cold increase as the deepening low approaches Ohio from the southeast. And these high winds extended all the way back to Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. At this time, many boats were in the water over Lake Huron. This is when most of the ships -- and lives -- were lost. Measured wind gusts at Cleveland peaked at 62 knots (over 70 mph) at 4:40 p.m.

By 4 a.m., Monday, Nov. 10, the center of the low pressure was stalled near London Ontario, just 60 miles north of Cleveland. By 10 a.m. Monday, winds on Lake Erie are southwesterly and at hurricane force on the far eastern end of the lake. High winds at this point are increasing storm surge water levels near Buffalo Harbor. Water levels at Toledo were 6 feet below normal.

For 16 hours, the storm system sat over southern Ontario pummeling northern Ohio and much of the Great Lakes with hurricane force winds and heavy snow. Cleveland was hit the hardest with snow, with 17.4 inches falling in a 24-hour window and a three-day total of 22.2 inches. This smashed the previous 24-hour record snowfall in Cleveland by 4.4 inches.

The storm paralyzed the city with nearly all businesses, factories, and schools closed on Nov. 10. What few street cars and trains that were running were several hours behind schedule and most roads were impassible to cars. The city suffered extensive power and telephone outages and the telegraph lines were down for several days. Damage estimates in the Cleveland area alone were approximately $3.5 million in 1913, equivalent to $82 million in 2013.

It finally began to weaken and move northeast on Monday evening, Nov. 10. During the height of the storm, wind gusts exceeded “hurricane force” (greater than 74 mph) for extended periods of time over Lakes Huron, Erie, Eastern Superior, and Lake Michigan.

Lake Erie experienced hurricane force winds for an estimated 16 hours! The 6-hour period between 6 p.m. and midnight on Nov. 9, 1913, was one of the deadliest weather events in North American history. A total of nine large Great Lakes ships sank and over 200 crew on those ships lost their lives. Eight of these ships were lost on Lake Huron, where waves heights were estimated at 36 feet. At least 3 of the large boats, were found upside down indicating that they had capsized in the large waves.

One of the ships had left Cleveland a few hours before the storm. The 504-foot steel bulk freighter Isaac M. Scott, named after the president of the La Belle Iron Works, was built in 1909 by American Shipbuilding of Lorain, Ohio for the Virginia Steam Ship Company of Cleveland. Commanded by Capt. A. McArthur, the Scott was up bound from Cleveland to Milwaukee carrying coal valued at $22,000. The ship was last seen during the morning of Nov. 9 off Tawas, Michigan south of Thunder Bay just a few hours before the brunt of the storm.

The Scott disappeared with 28 lives. One of its lifeboats was found 23 miles north of the Chantrey Island lighthouse, off Southampton, Ontario but no other trace of the vessel was located. The giant steel shipwreck today sits intact though inverted on the lake bottom northeast of Thunder Bay Island.

A report from the Lake Carriers Association following the storm said:
“No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed! Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over.

Obviously, with a wind of such long duration, the seas that were made were such that the lakes are not ordinarily acquainted with. The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession, three waves ordinarily coming one right after the other.

They were considerably shorter than the waves that are formed by an ordinary gale. Being of such height and hurled with such force and such rapid succession, the ships must have been subjected to incredible punishment!”

(Thanks to Karen Clark, NOAA National Weather Service Meteorologist, Sarah Jamison, NOAA National Weather Service Hydrologist, and William R. Deedler, Author of “ Hell Hath’ No Fury Like a Great Lakes Fall Storm: Great Lakes White Hurrican November 1913 .”)

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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