The book Washington Weather -- documenting D.C.'s great hurricanes



The Chesapeake/Potomac Hurricane of August 23, 1933


The Hurricane of August 23, 1933 is best known for its huge tidal surge up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. The hurricane tracked northwest through the Atlantic, passing south of Bermuda on August 21. It made landfall at Nags Head at 4:00 a.m. on August 23, with a central pressure of 28.50 inches. The storm then tracked between Norfolk and Richmond to just west of Washington at 7:00 p.m. on August 23. In Washington, the storm produced 50-mph winds, dropped 6.18 inches of rain, and caused the pressure to fall to 28.94 inches.

The hurricane produced extensive tidal flooding of the Potomac River. A train crossing the Anacostia River was swept off its tracks by the floodwaters, killing ten people. In a ddition, four people drowned in their cars on the Washington-Baltimore Road when the Little Patuxent River went over its banks. An amusement park in Colonial Beach, located on the Potomac River, was completely swept away. In Alexandria, the Torpedo Factory and the Ford Motor Company were under six feet of water. The Washington-Richmond High-way was submerged under ten feet of water near Alexandria, Virginia, and Bolling Air Force Base was inundated by water up to five feet deep. A total of eighteen fatalities were recorded in the Washington area as a result of the storm.

The Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933 hit as a strong area of high-pressure was building over New England. The two forces working in tandem produced a long, easterly fetch of wind that piled up water along the Atlantic coast. After making landfall in Nags Head, North Carolina, the storm moved directly over Norfolk and then marched just west of the Chesapeake Bay toward the nationís capital. As winds shifted to the south, a Chesapeake Bay tidal bore began to develop. A tidal bore is a solitary wave, formed when a rising tide enters a shallow, gently sloping, and narrowing river from a broad estuary. Because the hurricane traveled at about the same rate of speed as the tidal bore, it continued to feed energy into this high-breaking wave, and the huge mound of water was swept up the entire length of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.

As the water surged from the bay into the narrowing confines of the Potomac River, a funneling effect resulted in a huge storm surge in Washington (11.3 feet above normal low tide) and Alexandria (twelve feet above normal low tide). This was higher than the storm surge observed at Norfolk (9.3 feet above normal low tide), which was close to the point of landfall. The twelve-foot rise on the Potomac in Old Town, Alexandria, flooded the Torpedo Factory with six feet of water at high tide, while the Washington-Richmond Highway (Route 1) lay submerged under ten feet of water. On the Anacostia River, the devastating tidal surge swept a train off a bridge as it tried to cross, killing ten people. Devastating as it was, there is strong evidence to suggest flooding on the Potomac and neighboring rivers like the Patuxent and Wicomico in Charles County could be even worse.

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