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New England's 'Perfect Storm': A Nor'easter Turned Hurricane

New England was hit by a powerful storm just two months after feeling the direct impact of category two Hurricane Bob. This storm was one of the most unique and unusual storms to ever form in the Atlantic Ocean.


Storm origin and massive waves


A cold front swept across the northeast in late October 1991. Following this cold front, an area of low pressure formed off the coast of Nova Scotia. Over the next 24 hours, this system quickly intensified. While the low pressure system intensified, an area of high pressure developed over eastern Canada. As the pressure gradient between the two systems grew stronger, it resulted in fierce winds.


Tropical storm force winds were recorded at the storm's center as well as along New England's coast at this point. The non-tropical storm intensified and caused extremely rough seas. On October 28, the Hannah Boden fishing vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, reported 90mph winds and 30 foot waves.



Another fishing vessel, the famed Andrea Gail, sank around the same time. The vessel was being slammed by 40-foot waves, with Canadian weather buoys reporting rogue waves of 60 feet. The Andrea Gail was never found, and the storm killed all six crew members.


While the nor'easter raged on in the north, hurricane Grace swirled near Bermuda. The nor'easter began to absorb Grace on October 29, resulting in a massive energy transfer. The nor'easter began to strengthen as it fed off Grace's tropical energy.


The Perfect Storm evolution and timeline:



New England impacts


The nor'easter reached its peak intensity on October 30. By this point, Grace had been completely absorbed by the storm. The nor'easter, now at its peak intensity, began to move southwest toward the New England coast. The storm was producing wave heights of 40-50 feet, with rogue waves reaching 80-100 feet in the North Atlantic.



The storm brought hurricane-force winds and storm surge flooding to the Massachusetts coast as waves up to 25 feet slammed the shoreline. The NOAA described the coastal impacts in Massachusetts and New Jersey as follows:


"Hundreds of homes and businesses were either knocked from their foundations or simply disappeared. Sea walls, boardwalks, bulkheads and piers were reduced to rubble over a wide area. Numerous small boats were sunk at their berths and thousands of lobster traps were destroyed. Flooding was extensive, invading homes and closing roads and airports."


Coastal damage in Massachusetts:

All photos from Associated Press


Because of the wind direction, the South Shore and Cape Cod took the brunt of the fury from the ocean. Over 100 homes were destroyed in Marblehead alone. Maine and New Hampshire were not totally spared from the coastal flooding. 53 homes were damaged or destroyed along the northern New England coast. One person was killed by the storm on land in Rhode Island



While the storm was not yet a hurricane, it produced hurricane-force wind gusts across the region. The highest reported gust was 78mph in Chatham, Massachusetts. This led to widespread power outages across the region. After the storm, president George H.W. Bush declared a total of 13 counties disaster areas across Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.


The overall impact of The Perfect Storm, while severe, is sometimes lost in storm history as Hurricane Bob struck the region about two months prior, which was overall a much higher impact storm. Since the center of The Perfect Storm remained offshore, the worst of the impact remained over the open ocean.


By October 31, the storm had begun to move away from the New England coast and was still drifting southwestward. The storm began to weaken as well.


Storm evolution continues


This is when the storm's evolution became truly unprecedented. On November 1, a small area of circulation formed near the storm's center. Hurricane hunters flew into the storm and discovered convection typical of a tropical cyclone. The system had a warm core and sustained winds of 75 miles per hour. The nor'easter had evolved into a category one hurricane. The hurricane began to move northeast around this time.



A cold-core storm (a nor’easter) transforming into a warm-core storm (tropical storm) is extremely rare. Warm-core systems typically become post-tropical when they move northward, spawning cold-core nor'easters. With this storm, the opposite occurred: a nor'easter spawned a hurricane.


As it approached Canada, near where the original nor'easter had formed, the hurricane began to weaken quickly. On November 2, the storm made landfall in Nova Scotia as a low-end tropical storm. The storm passed well to the east of New England. The hurricane was never given a name. This was done to avoid confusion.


It was believed that naming the hurricane would lead New England residents to believe that a hurricane was bearing down on them while they were still cleaning up from the original nor'easter. Because the hurricane was expected to stay well offshore and have no impact on the region, it was left alone.



‘The Perfect Storm’


This hurricane is referred to simply as the "unnamed hurricane" by the National Hurricane Center. The storm was also known as the "Halloween nor'easter of 1991," but most people are familiar with the name "The Perfect Storm," which was coined by author Sebastian Junger after a conversation with Boston meteorologist Robert Case. In an interview in 2000, when the feature film 'The Perfect Storm' (based on the story of the Andrea Gail) was released, Case stated:


“These circumstances alone [referring to the initial formation of the nor’easter] could have created a strong storm, But then, like throwing gasoline on a fire, a dying Hurricane Grace delivered immeasurable tropical energy to create the Perfect Storm."


As previously stated, once the hurricane formed, it stayed well away from New England and had no impact on the region. If this hurricane had been named, it would have been Henri. This would be the final hurricane of the 1991 season.




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