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News Releases 2004
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Most hurricanes affect the United States’ East Coast, but the West Coast is also vulnerable, as shown by an 1858 tropical cyclone that brought hurricane-force winds to San Diego. The historical data and contemporary analysis of this event were presented today by a NOAA scientist at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in San Diego, Calif. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“On October 2, 1858, estimated sustained hurricane force winds produced by a tropical cyclone located a short distance offshore were felt in San Diego,” said Christopher Landsea, the co-author of a paper on the 1858 hurricane and a hurricane researcher at NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, Fla. “Extensive damage was done in the city and was described as the severest gale ever felt to that date, nor has it been matched or exceeded in severity since.”
Landsea and the lead author, Michael Chenoweth, an independent scholar, published their paper in the November 2004 edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
“For years, meteorologists had heard rumors about a San Diego hurricane, but there was not any solid evidence easily found,” said Landsea. “But Mike found newspaper accounts of the hurricane and its damaging effects as well as a first-hand meteorological observations by an Army surgeon named James Mulholland who was stationed at the New San Diego fort in 1858.”
Articles from San Francisco’s Daily Alta California and the Los Angeles Star are the only ones that survive, but the Alta carried articles from other newspapers, including the San Diego Herald.
One such account begins: “One of the most terrific and violent hurricanes that has ever been noticed by the inhabitants of our quiet city, visited us on Saturday, the 2nd at daylight.” Reports were made of gradually increasing winds, “ominous-looking clouds,” and “impenetrable clouds of dust and sand,” until about 1 p.m., when “it came along in a perfect hurricane, tearing down houses and everything in its way.”
As with Atlantic hurricanes, the conditions were right. Coral evidence suggests an El Niño event may have occurred that year, which would have kept ocean waters warmer than usual near California. Warmer waters and a conducive atmosphere allowed the hurricane to sustain Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale Category 1 intensity (wind speed of 72-95 mph) as far north as southern California. Available evidence suggests that the hurricane tracked just offshore from San Diego, without the eye coming inland, but close enough to produce damaging winds along the entire coast from San Diego to Long Beach.
The hurricane force winds at San Diego are the first and only documented instance of winds of this strength from a tropical cyclone in the recorded history of the state, Landsea and Chenoweth wrote.
Landsea, the developer of the Atlantic Hurricane Database Re-analysis Project, which looks at hurricanes and revises their meteorological statistics when new data are available, notes that if a hurricane similar to the 1858 storm hit San Diego today, damage from such a storm could likely reach several hundred million dollars.
“But what this also tells us is that a hurricane has directly affected southern California in recorded history and we should remember that if the conditions are right, the area could get hit again,” Landsea said. “Mike and I hope that emergency managers, residents of the area, business owners, the insurance industry, and decision-makers be made aware of this possibility, as most in southern California may think they are completely safe from hurricanes because they are on the Pacific coast instead of the Atlantic.”
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