The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, historically referred to as the "Big Blow", the "Freshwater Fury" or the "White Hurricane", was a blizzard with hurricane-force winds that devastated the Great Lakes Basin in the Midwestern United States and the Canadian province of Ontario from November 7 through November 10, 1913. The storm was most powerful on November 9, battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron. Deceptive lulls in the storm and the slow pace of weather reports contributed to the storm's destructiveness.
The deadliest and most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the lakes, the Great Lakes Storm killed more than 250 people, destroyed 19 ships and stranded 19 other ships. The financial loss in vessels alone was nearly US $5 million, or about $100 million at current value. This included about $1 million at current value in lost cargo totalling about 68,300 tons, such as coal, iron ore, and grain.
The storm originated as the convergence of two major storm fronts, fueled by the lakes' relatively warm waters—a seasonal process called a "November gale". It produced 90 mph (145 km/h) winds, waves over 35 feet (11 m) high, and whiteout snowsqualls. Analysis of the storm and its impact on humans, engineering structures and the landscape led to better forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings, stronger and more construction (especially of marine vessels), and improved preparedness.
During autumn, cold, dry air moving south from northern Canada converges with warm, moist air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico, forming large storm systems in the middle of the continent. Several of these systems move along preferred paths toward the Great Lakes. When the cold air from these storms moves over the lakes, it is warmed by the waters below. This added heat postpones the Arctic spread in the region, allowing the lakes to remain relatively warm for much longer than otherwise.
In November, two storm tracks converge over the Great Lakes. One travels southeastward from the province of Alberta; the other brings storms from the lee of the central Rocky Mountains northeast toward the Great Lakes. This convergence is commonly referred to as a "November gale" or "November witch". When a cyclonic system moves over the lakes, its power is intensified by the jet stream above and the warm waters below. This allows the storm to maintain hurricane-force winds up to 100 mph (160 km/h), produce waves over 50 feet (15 m) high, and dump several feet of snow or inches of rain. Fuelled by the warm lake water, these powerful storms may remain over the Great Lakes for days. Intense winds then ravage the lakes and surrounding shores, severely eroding the shoreline, and flooding the coasts.
November gales have been a bane of the Great Lakes, with at least 25 killer storms striking the region since 1847. During the Big Blow of 1905, twenty-seven wooden vessels were lost. During a November gale of 1975, the giant ore bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank suddenly, without a distress signal.
The storm was first noticed on Thursday, November 6, on the western side of Lake Superior, moving rapidly toward northern Lake Michigan. The weather forecast in The Detroit News called for "moderate to brisk" winds for the Great Lakes, with occasional rains Thursday night or Friday for the upper lakes (except on southern Lake Huron), and fair to unsettled conditions for the lower lakes.
Around midnight, the steamer Cornell, while 50 miles (80 km) west of Whitefish Point in Lake Superior, ran into a sudden northerly gale and was badly damaged. This gale lasted until late Monday, November 10, almost forcing Cornell ashore.
On Friday, the weather forecast in the Port Huron Times-Herald of Port Huron, Michigan, described the storm as "moderately severe. By then, the storm was centered over the upper Mississippi Valley and had caused moderate to brisk southerly winds with warmer weather over the lakes. The forecast predicted increased winds and falling temperatures over the next 24 hours.
At 10:00 a.m., Coast Guard stations and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Weather Bureau offices at Lake Superior ports raised white pennants above square red flags with black centers, indicating a storm warning with northwesterly winds. By late afternoon, the storm signal flags were replaced with a vertical sequence of red, white, and red lanterns, indicating that a hurricane with winds over 74 mph (119 km/h) was coming. The winds on Lake Superior had already reached 50 mph (80 km/h), and an accompanying blizzard was moving toward Lake Huron.
By Saturday, the storm's status had been upgraded to "severe". The storm was centered over eastern Lake Superior, covering the entire lake basin. The weather forecast of the Port Huron Times-Herald stated that southerly winds had remained "moderate to brisk". Northwesterly winds had reached gale strength on northern Lake Michigan and western Lake Superior, with winds of up to 60 mph (97 km/h) at Duluth, Minnesota.
There was a false lull in the storm, called a sucker hole, allowing traffic to begin flowing again, both down the St. Marys River and up Lake Erie, and the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, into Lake Huron. Ignored were the gale wind flags raised at more than a hundred ports. Long ships traveled all that day through the St. Marys River, all night through the Straits of Mackinac, and early Sunday morning up the Detroit and St. Clair rivers.
By noon on Sunday, weather conditions on lower Lake Huron were close to normal for a November gale. Barometric pressures in some areas actually began to rise, bringing hope of an end to the storm. The low pressure area that had moved across Lake Superior was moving northeast, away from the lakes.
The Weather Bureau had issued the first of its twice-daily reports at approximately 8:00 a.m.; it did not send another report to Washington, D.C. until 8:00 p.m. This proved to be a serious problem: the storm would have the better part of a day to build up hurricane forces before the Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C., would have detailed information.
Along southeastern Lake Erie, near the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, a southern low-pressure area was moving toward the lake. This low had formed overnight, so was absent from Friday's weather map. It had been traveling northward and began moving northwestward after passing over Washington, D.C.
The intense counterclockwise rotation of the low was made apparent by the changing wind directions around its center. In Buffalo, New York, morning northwest winds had shifted to northeast by noon and were blowing southeast by 5:00 p.m., with the fastest gusts, 80 mph (130 km/h), occurring between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. Just 180 miles (290 km) to the southwest, in Cleveland, winds remained northwest during the day, shifting to the west by 5:00 p.m., and maintaining speeds of more than 50 mph (80 km/h). The fastest gust in Cleveland, 79 mph (127 km/h), occurred at 4:40 p.m. There was a dramatic drop in barometric pressure at Buffalo, from 29.52 inHg (999.7 hPa) at 8:00 a.m. to 28.77 inHg (974.3 hPa) at 8:00 p.m.
The rotating low continued along its northward path into the evening, bringing its counterclockwise winds in phase with the northwesterly winds already hitting Lakes Superior and Huron. This resulted in an explosive increase in northerly wind speeds and swirling snow. Ships on Lake Huron that were south of Alpena, Michigan—especially around Harbor Beach and Port Huron in Michigan and Goderich and Sarnia in Ontario—were battered with huge waves moving southward toward St. Clair River.
From 8:00 p.m. to midnight, the storm became what modern meteorologists call a "weather bomb". Sustained hurricane-speed winds of more than 70 mph (110 km/h) ravaged the four western lakes. The worst damage was done on Lake Huron as numerous ships scrambled for shelter along its southern end. Gusts of 90 mph (140 km/h) were reported off Harbor Beach, Michigan. The lake's shape allowed northerly winds to increase unchecked, because of the lower surface friction of water compared to land, and the wind following the lake's long axis.
In retrospect, weather forecasters of the time did not have enough data or understanding of atmospheric dynamics to predict or comprehend the events of Sunday, November 9. Frontal mechanisms, referred to then as "squall lines", were not yet understood. Surface observations were collected only twice daily at stations around the country, and by the time these data were collected and hand-drawn maps created, the information lagged actual weather conditions by hours.
On Monday morning, the storm had moved northeast of London, Ontario, dragging lake effect blizzards in its wake. An additional 17 inches (43 cm) of snow were dumped on Cleveland, Ohio that day, filling the streets with snowdrifts 6 feet (2 m) high. Streetcar operators stayed with their stranded, powerless vehicles for two nights, eating whatever food was provided by local residents. Travelers were forced to take shelter and wait for things to clear.
By Tuesday, the storm was rapidly moving across eastern Canada. Without the warm lake waters, it lost power quickly. This also meant less snowfall, both because of the fast motion of the storm and the lack of lake effect snow. All shipping was halted on Monday and part of Tuesday along the St. Lawrence River around Montreal, Quebec.
Historically, storms of such magnitude and with such high wind velocities have not lasted more than four or five hours. The Great Lakes storm, however, raged for more than 16 hours, with an average speed of 60 mph (100 km/h), and frequent bursts of more than 70 mph (110 km/h). It crippled traffic on the lakes and throughout the Great Lakes basin region.
Along the shoreline, blizzards shut down traffic and communication, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. A 22-inch (56 cm) snowfall in Cleveland, Ohio, put stores out of business for two days. There were four-foot (122 cm) snowdrifts around Lake Huron. Power was out for several days across Michigan and Ontario, cutting off telephone and telegraph communications. A recently-completed US$100,000 Chicago breakwater, intended to protect the Lincoln Park basin from storms, was swept away in a few hours. The Milwaukee harbor lost its entire south breakwater and much of the surrounding South Park area that had been recently renovated.
After the final blizzards hit Cleveland, the city was paralyzed under feet of ice and snow and was without power for days. Telephone poles had been broken, and power cables lay in tangled masses. The November 11 Cleveland Plain Dealer described the aftermath:
William H. Alexander, Cleveland's chief weather forecaster, observed:
The greatest damage was done on the lakes. Major shipwrecks occurred on all but Lake Ontario, with most happening on southern and western Lake Huron. Lake masters recounted that waves reached at least 35 feet (11 m) in height. Being shorter in length than waves ordinarily formed by gales, they occurred in rapid succession, with three waves frequently striking in succession. Masters also stated that the wind often blew in directions opposite to the waves below. This was the result of the storm's cyclonic motion, a phenomenon rarely seen on the Great Lakes.
In the late afternoon of November 10, an unknown vessel was spotted floating upside-down in about of water on the eastern coast of Michigan, within sight of Huronia Beach and the mouth of the St. Clair River. Determining the identity of this "mystery ship" became of regional interest, resulting in daily front-page newspaper articles. The ship eventually sank, and it was not until early Saturday morning, November 15, that it was finally identified as the Charles S. Price. The front page of that day's Port Huron Times-Herald extra edition read, "BOAT IS PRICE — DIVER IS BAKER — SECRET KNOWN". Milton Smith, the assistant engineer who decided at the last moment not to join his crew on premonition of disaster, aided in identifying any bodies that were found.
The final tally of financial loss included US$2,332,000 for vessels totally lost, $830,900 for vessels that became constructive total losses, $620,000 for vessels stranded but returned to service, and approximately $1,000,000 in lost cargoes. This figure did not include financial losses in coastal cities.
The storm had several long-term consequences. Complaints against the USDA Weather Bureau of alleged unpreparedness resulted in increased efforts to achieve more accurate weather forecasting and faster realization and communication of proper storm warnings. Criticism of the shipping companies and shipbuilders led to a series of conferences with insurers and mariners to seek safer designs for vessels. This resulted in the construction of ships with greater stability and more longitudinal strength. Immediately following the blizzard of Cleveland, Ohio, the city began a campaign to move all utility cables underground, in tubes beneath major streets. The project took half a decade.
The following list includes ships that sank during the storm, killing their entire crews. It does not include the three victims from the freighter William Nottingham, who volunteered to leave the ship on a lifeboat in search of assistance. While the boat was being lowered into the water, a breaking wave smashed it into the side of the ship. The men disappeared into the near-freezing waters below. The following shipwreck casualties have been documented:
Of the twelve ships that sank in the storm, five have never been found: Henry B. Smith, Leafield, James C. Carruthers, Hydrus, and the barge Plymouth. The most recent discovery was that of Wexford in the summer of 2000.