This is the first time an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week has forced east coast residents to evacuate buildings. But in September of 1944, a similar situation occurred just 10 days apart. Hurricane Irene 2011 has been compared to Irene 1999, Gloria 1985 (as was Earl 2010), and the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.
All these hurricanes attacked the eastern sea board, leaving behind a wake of damages – though Irene's 1999 namesake focused her ire on Florida. Only this year's latest Atlantic hurricane follows on the heels of a rare eastern temblor. And on that note, the events in 1944 have set precedent.
On Sept. 5, 1944, New York had just had it's largest earthquake ever, what the USGS now identifies as a magnitude 5.8, near the Canadian boarder. The earthquake still stands as the state's largest in history. "This severe earthquake was felt from Canada south to Maryland and from Maine west to Indiana," states the USGS incident report.
Virgina's magnitude 5.8 earthquake earlier this week rivals the state's record: a magnitude 5.9 in 1897. Going back through the historical records, USGS seismologists have evaluated the intensity of the shaking, based on such information as the number of chimneys that fell, to identify the strength of the quake in modern terms. When last week's quake struck in roughly the same area, seismometers first identified the quake as a 5.9. Only once human eyes had a chance to review the data streaming in, did the quake get downgraded to a 5.8.
But none of these eastern state record-setting quakes come close to the "Big One," a magnitude 7.3, that struck Charleston, South Carolina, Sept. 1, 1886. The only other states that have experienced earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 7.0 are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, and Nevada. The quake in Charleston also came as part of a back-to-back freaky natural disaster combo.
While Charleston began picking up the debris from the earthquake, over to the west much of Texas was still reeling from Hurricane Indianoloa. With what today would be classified as a Category 4 storm, the hurricane come roaring from the Atlantic straight across through the Gulf of Mexico and struck Texas along the Mexican boarder on Aug. 20, 1886.
Keep in mind these events are unrelated and picking out dates for when they happen to occur close in time is possible only because hurricanes are common enough, often run for several days, and overlap during a season that lasts for nearly half the year. It also makes a difference picking only earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 or greater; smaller earthquakes are more common even in the eastern United States.
When the rare eastern earthquake that's greater than magnitude 5.0 does strike, it's not impossible for it to happen when an Atlantic hurricane is forming. I think what's most surprising is that until this week the two haven't happened closer in time and space.
Irene 2011 is already assured to go down in hurricane history, but as she approaches North Carolina tonight with 100 mph Category 2 wind speeds, the question remains how much is she taking with her?
IMAGE 1: The entire front of this apartment house facing the ocean in Atlantic City, NJ, was left bare after being stripped by the Category 3 Great Atlantic Hurricane on Sept. 15, 1944. This view is of Seaside Avenue, where the remains of the famous boardwalk can be seen. (Corbis)
IMAGE 2: Isoseismal Map of the Sept. 5, 1944, magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Massena, NY. (USGS)
IMAGE 3: The GOES-13 satellite view of Hurricane Irene as of Friday, August 26, at 7:32 p.m. EDT. (NASA/NOAA GOES Project)