Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Megan C. McGee Yinger

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms

The Greater Philadelphia area’s position near the Atlantic Ocean has made it vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms, especially along the Delaware and New Jersey shores, and to flooding from storm surges along the Delaware River. The majority of storms to hit the region have been tropical storms, because hurricanes have tended to weaken over the colder waters of the North Atlantic.

Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms, part of the family of rotating storms that also includes cyclones and typhoons, rotate around a central “eye” and create high winds and heavy rains. During the Atlantic hurricane season, primarily from June through November, these storms typically have formed off the western coast of Africa (near Cape Verde) and have moved with the trade winds toward the Caribbean and the eastern United States. Since 1973, meteorologists have classified the storms as tropical depressions, tropical storms, or hurricanes based on sustained wind speeds, with hurricanes ranging from Category 1 (74–95 miles per hour) to Category 5 (157 miles per hour or higher).

The history of hurricanes to hit the region is well documented because of early interest in the sciences. In 1644, the Reverend John Campanius Holm (1601-83) created the first American weather records at Swede’s Fort near Wilmington, Delaware. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) studied the forward or “progressive” movement of hurricanes during the Eclipse Hurricane of 1743, the first storm to be measured with scientific instruments. Scientists also have found evidence of the strength of storms during this era through geological markers, such as changes in sediment. The Great Storm of 1693 was strong enough to alter the coastline of the Delmarva Peninsula.

Snow Hurricane of 1804

[caption id="attachment_29369" align="alignright" width="360"] A hurricane of August/September 1848, is pictured in The Ocean, Atmosphere and Life, published in 1873. The illustration is one of the earliest storm tracks of a single hurricane showing its northwestwardly path and then curvature back to the northeast. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)[/caption]

The increased professionalization of the sciences in the nineteenth century produced clearer and more consistent records of notable storms. The Snow Hurricane of 1804 made landfall in Atlantic City in October, although the snow did not fall until the storm reached New England. The Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821 made landfall in Cape May, New Jersey. Equivalent to a Category 4 storm (130 to 156 mph), it affected much of the Philadelphia area with high winds and storm surge. In 1846, the Havana Hurricane caused storm surge throughout the Delaware Valley and caused extensive damage to Philadelphia wharfs.

In 1851 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started keeping hurricane records, which increased knowledge about storms during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Expedition Hurricane of 1861, a late season storm, coincided with the American Civil War. The storm delayed a naval expedition on its way to the Battle of Port Royal and damaged some ships. The storm’s damage to New Jersey rail lines hampered the Union war effort. Another storm of this era, the Gale of 1878, was no longer a full-fledged hurricane by the time it reached the mid-Atlantic region, but it caused extensive flood damage in Delaware and New Jersey (which had not yet fully recovered from damage to river banks from the San Felipe Hurricane two years earlier). High winds injured church steeples in Pennsylvania.

The frequency of storms hitting the Philadelphia area has varied with the position of a ridge of high-pressure centered over the central and western Atlantic. Whenever this ridge has been closest to the United States, it has pulled more storms toward the mid-Atlantic region; when the ridge is farther away, storms have been more likely to strike elsewhere. In the period of 1851 to 2012, the majority of Mid-Atlantic storms (60 percent) approached from the south, following the coast. Others took alternative tracks, either through the Piedmont region of North Carolina (11 percent) or along the Appalachian Mountains (11 percent). Rare storms have approached from the southwest and crossed the Appalachian Mountains.

[caption id="attachment_29366" align="alignright" width="300"] A diagram depicts rainfall amounts during The Great Hurricane of 1938. Areas in New Jersey received up to seven inches of rain. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)[/caption]

During the early years of the twentieth century, the Mid-Atlantic experienced few storms while some of the strongest hurricanes on record struck places like Galveston, Texas, and Miami, Florida. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, nicknamed “The Long Island Express,” primarily affected Long Island and New England. Before it made landfall, however, it caused flooding and wind damage along the New Jersey coastline, including at Atlantic City, Brigantine, and Wildwood.

Cycles of Twenty to Thirty Years

In addition to the effects of the Atlantic ridge of high-pressure, climate variations known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) have caused storm activity to vary in increased and decreased annual activity over cycles of twenty to thirty years. Following the inactivity of the early twentieth century, hurricane seasons became especially active again during the 1950s. In 1953, the World Meteorological Organization began giving the storms female names, a system aimed to improve communication with the public and standardize storm tracking. The system changed in 1979 to alternate names between male and female. In mid-October 1954, Hurricane Hazel came ashore in North Carolina and affected inland areas of Pennsylvania as a Category 1 storm, causing flooding and uprooting trees before moving into Canada. In August 1955, Hurricanes Connie and Diane struck the area within a week of one another. Connie caused flooding throughout the Greater Philadelphia region, but the drought conditions at the time in Delaware decreased the level of destruction. However, record flooding occurred in the Poconos and along the Delaware River when Diane hit the same areas of the region only five days later.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the mid-Atlantic region experienced a few major storms, primarily tropical storms or depressions. Hurricane Gloria in 1985 produced high winds, including a peak gust of 81 miles per hour in Ocean City, New Jersey, and caused extensive flooding throughout the Delaware Valley. Tropical Storm Floyd (1999) started out as a strong Category 4 hurricane in the Caribbean. Although it weakened as it traveled up the Eastern Seaboard, the storm caused widespread flooding and power outages across New Jersey and much of central and eastern Pennsylvania. Tropical Storm Allison (2001) formed in the Gulf of Mexico, hitting Texas and Louisiana before heading toward the mid-Atlantic region on a rare over-land path. Despite never evolving into a hurricane, Allison was especially destructive. The Philadelphia area saw extensive flooding, including in Bucks County, where the Neshaminy Creek crested at almost seventeen feet. In Montgomery County, flooding caused a gas explosion that killed six.

Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) struck the Jersey shore unusually hard. On August 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene made landfall on Brigantine Island and caused extensive flooding throughout New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont. It also spawned tornadoes and caused storm surge along the New Jersey coast. Hurricane Sandy hit late in the 2012 season on October 29 and 30, starting out as a fairly weak hurricane that quickly strengthened over the Bahamas. Although no longer at hurricane strength by the time it reached the Jersey Shore and reclassified as a “post-tropical cyclone with hurricane force winds,” Superstorm Sandy made landfall at Brigantine, New Jersey, and exceeded most officials’ expectations in destruction to the shore, New York City, and other coastal areas. Ignoring evacuation orders, many stayed behind and risked the floods, winds, and storm surge. Because the storm occurred late in the season, many people simply had not prepared for a hurricane. The extraordinarily large storm caused 1.2 million power outages in Pennsylvania alone.

Storms such as Sandy and Irene suggested that climate change could be affecting the strength and frequency of strong hurricanes hitting the mid-Atlantic region. During the period from the 1970s through the second decade of the twenty-first century, the number of Category 4 and 5 storms approximately doubled. Although rotating storms strengthened around the world, the North Atlantic appeared to be more affected by the increase in ocean temperatures. Higher sea levels have created an increased risk of destructive storm surge, and as populations have become denser in coastal areas, more people in the greater Philadelphia region have been at risk of being in the path of a hurricane or tropical storm.

Megan C. McGee Yinger earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from Penn State University-Harrisburg. She is working on a project that explores how American media prepare for and cope with natural and man-made disasters.

Television Shows (About Philadelphia)

The Philadelphia region has provided a backdrop for numerous television programs, including shows by creators from the region. Although the programs often were shot in other places, like New York or Los Angeles, the Philadelphia setting provided important references and details. In some cases, stories called for posh suburbs, such as those on the Main Line. In other situations, the central city served as a gritty urban setting. The depictions were not always positive, but they created an image of southeastern Pennsylvania that reached viewers across the country.

[caption id="attachment_26081" align="alignright" width="239"] American Bandstand was filmed in a West Philadelphia studio from its inception in 1952 until production was moved to Los Angeles in 1957. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the early days of television, most shows were set in New York City, home to the television industry until production migrated to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. It took some time for shows to be set outside New York. One of the first national programs to be broadcast from Philadelphia, American Bandstand (WFIL, 1952-57; ABC, 1957-87; USA, 1989), started as a local program in 1952 and went national in 1957. The legacy of American Bandstand continued with the 2002 drama American Dreams (NBC, 2002-5), which examined life in Philadelphia in the early 1960s.

Philadelphia’s suburbs became a favorite setting for the intrigue and scandal of daytime soap operas. The Main Line west of Philadelphia had established a reputation as a place of wealth, especially in the wake of The Philadelphia Story, the 1939 play that became a 1940 film and the 1956 movie musical High Society starring Philadelphia’s Grace Kelly (1929-82). In combination with the nearby city, suburban neighborhoods also provided a setting of socioeconomic diversity. Two long-running soap operas, All My Children (ABC, 1970-2011) and One Life to Live (ABC, 1968-2013), both operated in the same soap opera universe but took place in different suburbs. All My Children was set in the fictional suburb of “Pine Valley,” modeled on Rosemont on the Main Line. One Life to Live’s fictional “Llanview,” a nod to the area’s Welsh background, took its inspiration from Chestnut Hill in Northwest Philadelphia. The creator of both shows, Agnes Nixon (1922-2016), a longtime resident of the Main Line, grew up in Tennessee and provided her shows with an outsider’s view of a world she came to know well. Nixon created a world that illustrated the socioeconomic diversity of the area and did not seek to whitewash her setting.

[caption id="attachment_26084" align="alignright" width="216"]a black and white photograph of Philip Barry wearing an overcoat and bowler hat. Playwright Philip Barry popularized the Philadelphia Main Line suburbs as a backdrop for the social elite in film and television with his 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The 1980s renaissance of television drama found Philadelphia and its suburbs in the spotlight again, primarily with thirtysomething (ABC, 1987-91). This program followed a group of friends through the stresses of children, career, and marriage. As part of the “prestige drama” trend in the 1980s, the show had a relatively small audience, but those viewers gained a new perspective of Philadelphia. Co-creator Marshall Herskovitz (b. 1952) was a Philadelphia native, and his characters had careers at City Hall and attended school at places like the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. The show depicted Philadelphia as a city with a vibrant and educated creative upper-middle class through characters who worked in a fictional Philadelphia advertising agency. Through the death of a main character in a car crash, thirtysomething also reinforced the notion that the Schuylkill Expressway was a dangerous place to drive.

Family Sitcoms

During the 1990s, Philadelphia and its suburbs also served as settings for family sitcoms. Boy Meets World (ABC, 1993-2000) made references to Philadelphia sports teams, landmarks, and universities, although the city remained largely unseen and unimportant to the action. In contrast, The Goldbergs (ABC, debuted 2013) relied on its setting of Jenkintown and its proximity to the city to tell its stories. In addition to the family’s love for the Philadelphia Flyers and Phillies, the show represented the city’s Jewish population. Based on the childhood of the creator, Jenkintown native Adam F. Goldberg (b. 1976), the stories required specific local institutions and landmarks, such as Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum.

[caption id="attachment_26085" align="alignright" width="235"]a black and white photograph of Bill Cosby in a Temple University sweater Bill Cosby based his childrens' show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids on his experience growing up in North Philadelphia. The show addressed problems intercity children face such as racism and gun violence. (John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Philadelphia-centered programs increasingly depicted a broader spectrum of race and class. In 1972, Bill Cosby (b. 1937) created the cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (CBS, 1972-85), which took place in the projects of North Philadelphia, a world away from the Main Line in the era after the “white flight” of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (NBC, 1990-96) confronted juxtapositions of class and race head-on as its main character, an African American teenager played by Philadelphia-born Will Smith (b. 1968), went to live with family in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Bel-Air. The show’s catchy opening theme song (“In West Philadelphia born and raised…”) established a close association with Philadelphia. In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the show confronted issues of race in major cities in the early 1990s.

The city’s gritty reputation from the 1970s and 1980s contributed to making it a backdrop for crime procedurals and dramas in the twenty-first century. Hack (CBS, 2002-04) shot primarily on location in Philadelphia, but others including Body of Proof (ABC, 2011-13), and Cold Case (CBS, 2003-10) filmed elsewhere and used the city as a setting perceived to have a high crime rate. How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, debuted 2014) used University City as its setting, creating the fictional Middleton University out of Philadelphia’s many elite schools. The show also featured a diverse cast, reflecting the heterogeneous professional class in Philadelphia.

It’s Always Sunny . . .

Philadelphia natives who became show creators found success in highlighting their hometowns, even if the depiction was not always kind. The creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX / FXX, debuted 2005), Rob McElhenney (b. 1977), was born and raised in Philadelphia, attending St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. The show often referred to major landmarks and institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania and South Street. The writers also included smaller local references such as La Salle University and the Philadelphia Inquirer and required its viewers to know something about the city to get some of the jokes involving these regional touchstones. However, the show tended to depict the city as dirty and populated by shifty, undereducated eccentrics. Crude, unsympathetic main characters found themselves in very unfortunate predicaments. This vision of Philadelphia was played to comic effect, however, and McElhenney’s charity work and restaurants in the city demonstrated his deep affection for his hometown.

[caption id="attachment_26082" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a bank built in the classical style with prominent front columns The Real World is often credited with popularizing the reality television format in the United States. Philadelphia was chosen as the location for the 2004-05 season. (PhillyHistory.com)[/caption]

The proliferation of reality programming starting in the early 2000s also placed Philadelphia at center stage, albeit in an extensively edited way. The Real World (MTV, debuted 1992), which cast diverse twenty-somethings to live and work together for a period of time, set up in a former bank building at Third and Arch Streets in 2004. As cameras recorded typical young adult angst and problems in the house, The Real World: Philadelphia cast worked for the Philadelphia Soul arena football team and performed charity work for the Northern Home for Children. As with many of the Real World casts, controversy followed throughout the show’s filming, and an altercation between a Philadelphia police officer providing security and some off-duty officers cast the city in a negative light. Parking Wars (A&E, 2008-12) followed the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) on its daily rounds as officers wrote tickets, booted vehicles, and dealt with angry drivers. While the show also filmed in Providence, Rhode Island, and Detroit, Michigan, Philadelphia became the city most commonly associated with the program. Cops (Fox / Spike, debuted 1989) and The First 48 (A&E, debuted 2004) also shot episodes in Philadelphia.

The region’s diverse depictions on television often created realistic representations of the physical city and reflected dominant characteristics of its people, but some programs also reinforced problematic stereotypes. Often with guidance from creators with local ties, Philadelphia became, in effect, another character on the shows set in the city and its suburbs. These settings became, in turn, an attraction for fans seeking to visit sites and neighborhoods from their favorite programs, leading to increased tourism and demonstrating the impact of Philadelphia’s longstanding and continuing presence on television.

Megan C. McGee Yinger earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from Penn State University-Harrisburg. She is working on a project that explores how American media prepare for and cope with natural and man-made disasters.

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