“Not since the Great Blizzard!” “Bigger than 1821!” Hurricane Sandy inspires historical superlatives

When things get really, really bad, history provides validation and context.   The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has already inspired newscasters, meteorologists and journalists to reach to the greatest disasters in New York City history for comparison.

These can seem very hyperbolic at times and even a little weird. (‘7 Devastating Hurricanes: Where Will Sandy Rank?‘ as though she were an American Idol contestant.)  It will be days before we really know if this was truly “the greatest disaster in New York history.”  But I do think the comparisons can not only bring home the severity of the current situation, they can also bring to life past traumas in a way that no faded black-and-white image ever could.

Here’s a few historical comparisons I’ve heard thus far, and I’m adding a couple of my own, events that popped into mind as I watched some of the terrifying images on television:

Worst Subway Shutdown Ever — The subways often flood after rainstorms, but snowstorms have also been a menace, particularly the blizzard of 1947 and one in 2006.  However, after Sandy, the MTA declared “The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night.”  Last year’s Hurricane Irene was the first time the subway was ever preemptively shut down.  The decision this year proved wise indeed. [source]
Great Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821 — The Battery experienced high water levels of 11.2 feet during this 1821 event, still the only hurricane to ever directly hit New York. Last night, water levels surged to 13.88 feet, setting a new, disturbing record. Also known as the Great September Gale.

The Great New York Fire of 1835 — The images of runaway fires in Queens, mixed with the utter devastation of lower Manhattan, might remind you of the December blaze of 1835 which destroyed hundreds of buildings downtown. However, that exploding transformer on 14th Street — which caused a blackout to thousands of residents last night — also recall a series of explosions which occurred in New York in 1845, affectionately called the Great Explosion of 1845.  (Boy, they can really overuse a word like ‘great’.)

The Great Blizzard of 1888 — Sandy forced the shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange for a second day today, although the storm did not flood it, as rumors Monday night proclaimed. This was the first time the exchange has shut down for more than one day since the pulverizing snowstorm of 1888 paralyzed city transportation.

The Rockaway Fire of 1892 — One of the hardest hit areas in New York was Rockaway Beach, with its boardwalk destroyed and dozens of homes destroyed by fire over in Breezy Point.  The frightening images reminded me of something from our Rockaways podcast from this summer, a great fire which broke out in September of 1892 which destroyed most of the neighborhood of Seaside.

The Big Wind of 1912 — If contemporary sources are to be believed, the frozen windstorm which struck New York on February 22, 1912, blew at speeds more than double those of Sandy. The ‘giant among gales’ even stirred up a huge blaze in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and tested the steel of recently built skyscrapers.

The Long Island Express (New England Hurricane of 1938) — This powerful hurricane slammed into New England and Long Island in September of 1938.  It remains the most powerful storm to ever ravage the New England states.  According to Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, Sandy’s barometric pressure ties that of the Long Island storm, at 946 millibars.

The Ash Wednesday Hurricane of 1962 — Due to the ‘Frankenstorm‘ aspect to Sandy, another metric experts have used is the similarly formed, long-lingering March 1962 storm which hammered North Carolina, New Jersey and Long Island.

Hurricane Andrew 1992 —  Comparisons to this catastrophe are still out, as it’s mostly evoked due to the federal government’s poor disaster response. Another question left lingering is whether the cost of Sandy will rival that of Andrew, the third most expensive hurricane in American history (after Katrina and Ike).

September 11, 2001 — Then, of course, due to the shutdown of lower Manhattan, one can’t help but recall the attack on the World Trade Center, which actually was the worst thing to ever happen to New York City.

Crane Collapse at 303 East 51st Street 2008 — Anybody seeing the images of the broken crane which hung precariously at the construction site of One57 on West 57th Street might have remembered the horror which occurred at another midtown Manhattan site just four years ago, a crane collapse on East 51st Street which killed seven people. To this day, the uncompleted building stands as a reminder to this tragedy.

If you’ve heard any other historical comparisons used on your local newscast, please put them in the comments.

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