Since 1972, Essex County, Massachusetts has declared 27 weather disasters. This large number of declarations can be attributed to three main geographic factors. First, Essex County has a long coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, making it susceptible to remnants of tropical storms and strong nor’easters. Second, the county lies on the lower Merrimack River valley where many rivers and tributaries are susceptible to flooding. And third, it’s in the Northeast United States, and unsurprisingly is prone to cold temperatures and heavy snow.
This dangerous combination of coastline, rivers, and snowmelt, subsequently results in frequent flooding across the county. Between 2001 and 2010, Essex was hit by six major floods. In 2001, widespread floods occurred throughout March as snow and then rain deluged the rivers. In 2005, the remnants of Hurricane Tammy caused floods that came up through western Massachusetts. In other years, the floods came from the coasts, bringing debris onto roads and causing severe beach erosion. The most infamous recent flood though was the Mother’s Day flood of 2006, when up to 12 inches of rain fell in a short time period, causing rivers and tributaries across the county to swell to record levels. As a result, many main roads were closed, including a major commuter route to Boston, and schools were shut down. The rain also brought additional fears that multiple dams could fail. Fortunately, only one dam failed, and the nearby residents were evacuated safely beforehand.
Snowstorms also come in multiple forms in Essex, including inundation by heavy snow, ice that brings down power lines, and the most damaging: blizzards and nor’easters. During the 2013 blizzard, Essex County received up to 29 inches of snow and had hurricane-level winds. In nearby Boston (only 10 miles away) winds reached 76 mph during the storm. One town in Essex was suspected to have similar extreme wind levels, but conditions were so severe that at the height of the storm the wind sensors were lost and the exact wind speeds remain unverified. A storm even more severe than the blizzard of 2013, however, occurred in 1978, and continues to hold many of the state’s records for snow totals and coastal flooding. At the peak of the storm, visibility was near zero as 79 mph winds whipped snow through Boston and its surrounding areas. Essex, being a commuter area, was highly affected when the storm hit during evening rush hour, stranding 3,500 cars on the highway as commuters headed home from Boston. Essex also recorded immense snowfall totals. The coastal town of Rockport recorded 32.5 inches of snow. To make matters worse, the storm caused major coastal flooding all along the Essex coastline. By the end of the storm, 2,000 homes on the Massachusetts coast were destroyed or severely damaged by the floods.
Essex County is also affected by tropical storms and hurricanes. Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 have shown that hurricanes can cause incredible damage in the northeast region. In fact, Hurricane Irene caused the state of Massachusetts $34.7 million in damage from wind alone and another $24.13 million from inland flooding. Essex’s earliest FEMA declaration for a tropical storm dates back to 1985 when Hurricane Gloria made landfall in Milford, Connecticut and traveled northeast through Massachusetts and into Maine. And even when a tropical storm doesn’t make landfall, remnants can intersect with other weather patterns to bring additional rain and wind, exacerbating other severe weather in Essex.