Ryan Hanrahan (opinion): Will Tropical Storm Henri rival CT storms of the past?

Hurricanes and tropical storms are unusual in Connecticut but something New Englanders have always had to worry about. Our brush with Hurricane Henri will be yet another in a long list of systems that churned north from the tropics bringing heavy rain, storm surge flooding and strong winds.

The state’s greatest natural disaster hit on Sept. 21, 1938. The Great New England hurricane roared north with astonishing speed and struck near New Haven without warning. Hundreds died throughout New England as a huge storm surge moved ashore flooding entire neighborhoods. The ’38 hurricane was the only hurricane in modern records to produce category three force winds (more than 111 mph) in the state.

The terrible flood of August 1955 was caused by two tropical systems. Tropical Storms Connie and Diane dropped more than 20 inches of rain in the state sending rivers out of their banks and devastating communities across Connecticut. The ’55 flood is a good reminder that tropical systems do much more than produce strong winds. The tropical rains they drop can be even more dangerous than the wind sending our normally tranquil rivers and streams into raging torrents.

In the last decade the state has dealt with Irene, Sandy and Isaias. It sure has seemed active but in many ways we’ve been lucky. Following the 1938 hurricane Connecticut was hit by a hurricane in 1944, Hurricane Carol in 1954, and Hurricane Donna in 1960. All three produced hurricane force winds in Connecticut — something Irene, Sandy and Isaias did not.

It has been 36 years since a hurricane has made landfall in Connecticut. Gloria in 1985 was a category 1 hurricane with wind gusts over 90 mph in Bridgeport. Hurricane Bob in 1991 made landfall in Rhode Island but did produce hurricane force winds in far southwestern Connecticut.

Since 1851 the average return interval for a hurricane in Connecticut is between 15 and 20 years. Out of the 10 hurricanes to strike in the last 170 years all but two of them have been a Category 1. Carol, a Category 2, and the 1938 hurricane, a Category 3, are the exceptions.

As a meteorologist in Connecticut there’s only one kind of storm that keeps me up at night. We know how to deal with blizzards and ice storms but a powerful tropical system will test our infrastructure like few other storms could.

A major hurricane like we saw in 1938 would produce unimaginable damage and disrupt life as we know it for months. Swaths of shoreline homes would be swept away, the power grid would need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and some towns would struggle for weeks cleaning up countless snapped and uprooted trees. Thank goodness Hurricane Henri will not be that storm but we will get one eventually.

No matter the strength of a hurricane all of these tropical cyclones are dangerous. Inland flooding, storm surge flooding and wind damage are the three main threats from any tropical system in New England. We should prepare for a significant impact and hope for a sudden wobble in the storm’s track.

Henri won’t be the biggest and it won’t be the worst but preparing before the storm hits will make dealing with it that much easier. We’ll get through this like all the storms before and all the storms still to come.

Ryan Hanrahan is a meterologist with NBC Connecticut.