Why A Single Hurricane Has Not Come Ashore In Virginia, Maryland Or Delaware Since 1851
If you stare at a map of where hurricanes have made landfall in the United States since 1851, you’ll notice an enormous void over the Mid-Atlantic coast. Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have never been directly struck. Southern New Jersey has only been hit once.
Is there a magical shield protecting the beaches where many Washingtonians vacation and have second homes? Will a hurricane ever directly strike these shores?
It turns out storms usually miss the expanse of coastline from roughly Virginia Beach to Long Beach Island, N.J., because of its geography. Whereas the Outer Banks of North Carolina and southern New England protrude outward into the Atlantic Ocean, the Delmarva Eastern Shore and surroundings are tucked in.
“The Delmarva area is hard for hurricanes to hit both geographically and meteorologically,” said Brian McNoldy, Capital Weather Gang’s tropical weather expert. “It’s a concave part of the coastline and storms that travel that far north are typically curving to the north or northeast. If the Delmarva Peninsula ‘stuck out’ east of Cape Hatteras, the hurricane landfall map would look quite different there.”
Of course, just because a hurricane hasn’t made landfall in the Delmarva area in modern records, doesn’t mean this region hasn’t witnessed hurricane and tropical storm conditions. Numerous storms have made landfall just south of this area in North Carolina, and then passed over it. And then there are remnant storms from the Gulf of Mexico, which unload copious amounts of rain.
Long-time residents no doubt remember storms like Hazel, Agnes, Isabel, Floyd, Irene, and Sandy, none of which were hurricanes when they swept through the area, but still had profound effects on the region.
“An official hurricane landfall is not needed to produce disastrous impacts,” McNoldy said. “A strong hurricane just 50 miles offshore won’t show up on the landfall map, but would certainly be memorable and destructive. Even a tropical storm is capable of producing major impacts.”
Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University and Capital Weather Gang contributor, notes that the National Hurricane Center maintains a database of the states where hurricane conditions have occurred.
“Maryland has been impacted by two hurricanes,” said Klotzbach. “One in 1878 and the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933. And, while hurricane-force winds may not have occurred, Isabel in 2003 certainly caused damage there as well [it was a tropical storm when it came through].”
Delaware has also twice witnessed hurricane conditions: by the same 1878 storm that impacted Maryland, and in a hurricane in 1903, the one and only to make landfall in southern New Jersey.
Due to its proximity to the Outer Banks, Southeast Virginia more routinely deals with hurricanes, having experienced hurricane conditions 13 times since 1851.
While it is true hurricane and tropical conditions can occur a good distance away from the landfall zone, the most severe impacts of hurricanes, including the strongest winds and most severe coastal flooding, do tend to focus where they come ashore. Does the Delmarva area’s absence of direct strikes since 1851 mean it will never witness one’s wrath? Not necessarily.
Given the right configuration of weather systems, a hurricane could be steered straight into the Delmarva coast. While not technically a hurricane at landfall, Hurricane Sandy — which roared ashore near Atlantic City, came awfully close to striking Delmarva.
Not to mention, unofficial historical accounts pre-1851 suggest hurricanes have slammed this region head on.
“Although one hasn’t hit since 1851, there are records of hurricanes hitting Virginia and the Delmarva Peninsula in 1667, 1683, 1693, 1724, 1785, and 1788. So it can happen,” said McNoldy.
In other words, this region shouldn’t consider itself immune. It should continue to monitor the tropics and have contingencies for a full hurricane blast.