Floods: Connecticut Knows The Power Of Water

An aerial view shows flooding in Hartford in 1936. (File photo)

August 1955 is hot, and wet.

On the 12th and 13th, the tail end of Hurricane Connie has passed, dropping up to 8 inches of rain over much of Connecticut.

And now it is hot again, this being one of the warmest months on record, thanks to a persistent flow of tropical oppression straight from the Gulf of Mexico.

There is an uneasy feeling in the air, a feeling in the bones that something is coming. The meteorologists may feel this too, but they don't see it.

At the Bradley Field Weather Station they have been tracking a hurricane named Diane. They are relieved when it makes landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1, and is soon downgraded to a tropical storm.

"Wet and worrisome Diane, once a hurricane but now only an overgrown storm, swept into Virginia today — getting weaker by the hour," a story in the Aug. 18 Courant reads.

The story says that the Washington Weather Bureau stopped "dignifying Diane with the name of hurricane" in its 8:20 p.m. bulletin.

Daybreak on the 18th finds the air humid and salty. The rain comes hard, but what sets it apart is not its intensity so much as its tenacity. It doesn't stop. When it finally does, Connecticut will have experienced the worst flooding in its history.

This, of course, is saying something when you have a flood history such as ours.

Connecticut Floods

The state is home to thousands of rivers, brooks, streams, lakes and ponds, and as we are all well aware, it doesn't take long for a trickling stream to become a torrent, a meandering river to become a raging malevolence, a dammed body of water to break free of its man-made bounds.

In the colder months, a lingering nor'easter might be the culprit. In the spring, snowpack melting and runoff are an annual worry. In summer and fall, the thunderstorm lurks while the hurricane tracks and threatens. And then there is the Atlantic Ocean, which can invade on the crashing waves of offshore storms, or tiptoe inland amid astronomical high tides.

Weather, of course, is the catalyst. Weather empowers water. And owing to our geographical location on the ocean, and subject to the whims of the jet stream, we get a lot of weather here. In an average year, Connecticut experiences measurable precipitation on 130 days, which averages out to 45.9 inches (15th among the contiguous 48 states).

Although flooding is common in Connecticut, there have been in our history floods that have stood out. The Wethersfield flood of 1692 is an early example.

Wethersfield was founded in 1634, and slowly grew into an important shipping port owing to the fact that it was as far inland as large ships could navigate before the Connecticut River became too shallow. Business was so good that by 1692, six warehouses lined the banks of the river.

Then the river rose. Not only did the swift-moving water sweep away five of the six warehouses, it also opened up a deep-water shipping channel all the way into Hartford.

The thing this flood is most noted for, however, is that it created what is now known as the Wethersfield Cove.

Early Record Keeping

Flood data from the 1700 and 1800s was largely dependent on the recollections, diaries and journals of local residents, along with newspaper accounts. Official government records of flooding on major rivers were not kept until 1904.

In 1957, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched an ambitious project to gather information on flooding before 1904. Seven years later, a detailed report called "Historical Floods in New England" was produced.