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2011: The year in extreme weather

NEED TO KNOW
  • 12 disasters in 2011 each caused more than $1 billion in damage
  • Rare events include EF5 tornadoes hitting Missouri and Alabama and Hurricane Irene threatening New York City
2011: The year in extreme weatherSatellite image of Hurricane Irene before it made landfall in NYC. Courtesy: NASA

Extreme weather came in fast and furious in 2011, with unwavering intensity for all twelve months of the year.

From snowstorms to drought, hurricanes to wildfires, epic floods to heat waves -- 2011 shattered records with “a total of twelve weather and climate disasters,” according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with "each causing $1 billion or more in damages -- and most regrettably, loss of human lives and property.”

The New Year started off with a bang as an unusually intense -- and poorly timed -- January 2011 snowstorm in the Washington DC area left some motorists stranded in their cars for more than 10 hours during an evening commute.

The following month, an even larger, monster winter storm brought Chicago to an utter standstill. The Groundhog Day Blizzard brought two feet of snow to the area, while wind gusts as high as 60 mph piled snow drifts in some spots 10 feet high! Cars were left abandoned on major thoroughfares like Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. This wallop of a storm didn’t just impact Illinois, but many central, eastern, and northeastern states. According to the National Climatic Data Center, it brought insured losses greater than $1 billion and total losses greater than $1.8 billion and unfortunately 36 deaths.

Record-shattering tornadoes

The spring thaw that followed did not evoke calmer conditions to the U.S. In both April and May, devastating record-shattering tornado outbreaks slammed the South, Midwest and other regions. In late April, an outbreak of 343 tornadoes in central and southern states caused 321 deaths. Of those fatalities, 240 occurred in Alabama alone. The deadliest tornado of the outbreak, an EF-5, hit northern Alabama on April 27, killing 78 people.

On May 22, an EF-5 (winds over 200 mph+) tornado struck Joplin, Missouri. It was one mile wide and traveled for 22 miles on the ground. According to NOAA, the Joplin tornado was the deadliest single tornado to strike the U.S. since modern tornado record-keeping began in 1950. 158 people lost their lives in this weather event.

Scorching summer

Hot and dry would be two good words to describe the summer of 2011: It was a season plagued by drought and extreme heat. Temperatures not only soared, but stayed unbearably scorching for weeks! Dallas, Texas saw 71 total days of 100+ plus temperatures. That’s the highest total number of 100 degree + days the city has ever seen. The Northeast wasn't spared from triple digit temps either. Newark, New Jersey set a new all-time record high of 108 on July 22, shattering the old record of 105 degrees, set on August 9, 2001.

The combination of hot temperatures and lack of rainfall caused Texas to see “its most severe one-year drought on record,” according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “Twelve month rainfall was the driest on record across much of Western, Central and Southern Texas,” he concluded. Many areas saw less than 25% of their annual precipitation.

Raging wildfires and rainfalls

The heat and drought led to a record wildfire season in many states. This occurred in the summer of 2011 and into the fall. Fires that ignited in states like Arizona and Texas were not only enormous in size, but also incredibly destructive. For example, the Bastrop Fire in Texas destroyed more than 1,500 homes and in Arizona. The Wallow Fire consumed more than 500,000 acres, making it the largest on record in the state.

While some areas didn’t receive enough water, others were inundated. In the Ohio Valley, rainfall totals increased by around 300%. This, combined with melting snowpack, caused catastrophic flooding along the Mississippi River. Further north, according to the National Climatic Data Center, “an estimated 11,000 people were forced to evacuate Minot, North Dakota due to the record high water level of the Souris River, where 4,000 homes were flooded.”

Mandatory evacuation for New Yorkers

Fast forward to the start of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. An “above average” season was predicted by forecasters at Colorado State University, and it lived up to that prediction. There were 19 tropical storms in the Atlantic this year, making 2011 the 3rd busiest season since record keeping began in 1851. One hurricane that developed in August grabbed the headlines with ferocity. That’s because this hurricane’s forecast track was headed directly towards a major metropolitan city that hadn’t seen a hurricane make landfall since 1985: New York City. For several days in late August, Hurricane Irene had the entire east coast on alert.

On August 26, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made this memorable announcement from City Hall:

“The sun is shining, but don't be misled. There is a very dangerous storm headed in our direction, and it could go slightly to the east or slightly to the west. It could speed up, it could close down, it could grow or diminish in intensity, but there is no question that we are going to get hit with some wind and high water that is very dangerous ... We are today issuing a mandatory -- I repeat the word mandatory -- evacuation order for all New Yorkers who live in the low-lying Zone A coastal areas in all five boroughs that are at greatest risk of damage relating to Irene.”

It was the first mandatory evacuation the city had ever seen. It was also the first time the New York City transit system was ever shut down in advance of a storm.

Hurricane Irene initially struck the U.S. as a Category 1 hurricane in eastern North Carolina on Saturday, August 26, and then moved northward along the Mid-Atlantic Coast. According to NOAA, “wind damage in coastal North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland was moderate, with considerable damage resulting from falling trees and power lines.” Luckily, the worst case scenario did not occur when Irene made its final landfall as a tropical storm in the New York City area. However, Irene did dump excessive rainfall in the Northeast that caused widespread flooding.

More than 7 million homes and businesses lost power during the storm, and Irene caused at least 45 deaths and more than $7.3 billion in damages.

And winter begins...

Finally, the last month of the 2011 brought a life-threatening early start to winter for residents of the Plains states. In the week before Christmas, a paralyzing blizzard struck the region. White-out conditions caused road closures of highways in Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado on December 19th and 20th. That’s two days before the official start of winter on December 22.

How did this year’s extreme weather impact you?

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider’s book "Extreme Weather" is available now on her website. Look for it in bookstores across the country, starting January 31.

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