Looking Back At The Labor Day Storm Of 1998

By Greg Machos
July 12, 2012

Recently, portions of the Garden State have been pummeled with several waves of severe weather. Fueled by a few torrid stretches of hot and humid weather, strong to severe thunderstorms have hammered a number of locations in New Jersey, especially in Monmouth, Ocean, and Atlantic counties within the past month. They include:

  • June 8, 2012--Severe Thunderstorms in Southern Monmouth, Ocean, and Atlantic counties--one produced a funnel cloud at Absegami HS.
  • June 22, 2012--Severe Thunderstorms in Monmouth and Ocean counties--hail and up to 6 inches of rain reported in Stafford.
  • June 29, 2012--Derecho in Southern New Jersey--two killed and thousands left without power.
  • July 7, 2012--Severe Thunderstorms in Hunterdon, Mercer, Southern Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties--reports of 78 mile per hour winds in Brick Township and 75 mile per hour winds in Toms River.

The recent derecho, which left many in the dark in Atlantic, Cumberland, and Salem counties, was the first such event in the Garden State in almost 15 years. The last time such a widespread storm system caused such damage was back on Labor Day 1998. At that time, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were closing in on Roger Maris' single season home run record, terrorist attacks had just occurred several weeks prior at U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the Atlantic was in the midst of a very active hurricane season.

Prior to what became known as the Labor Day Storm of 1998, temperatures were quite hot. Average temperature in New Brunswick in August of that year was 75 degrees while in Perth Amboy it was a bit warmer at 77 degrees. Maximum temperatures in September of that year was 93 in New Brunswick, 92 in Perth Amboy, 89 in Somerville, and 93 in Trenton.

This particular storm was actually one of two derechos to affect the Northeastern United States that day. According to the Storm Prediction Center, the first one struck farther north in Western New York near Syracuse and rolled across the central portion of the state before rambling into New England. The storm just took six hours to race from the Eastern Great Lakes to the New England coastline. The line of storms produced wind gusts of 77 miles per hour at Syracuse and 89 miles per hour at Rochester. Hardest hit areas had winds estimated up to 115 miles per hour. This first derecho left three people dead, 10 people injured, and over 1,000 homes and businesses damaged. Total damage from the storm was estimated to be $130 million at the time. Many were left without power for over a week.

As the first derecho raced toward the New England shore, a second one began to form a couple hours before dawn over the southeastern portion of the Lower Michigan Peninsula. Like the most recent derecho that devastated South Jersey, the storm had modest beginnings, but grew to be a monster. The line of storms would develop a classic bow echo shape as it rolled through Ohio and Pennsylvania during the morning and early afternoon. The storm system made it to Northwestern Middlesex County around 2:00 PM, and rolled through the area with hurricane force winds that downed trees, knocked fences down, took out power, and overturned boats. Four people were killed and another 62 injured. Approximately 300,000 people were left without power.

Here in South Plainfield, the day had started with the traditional Labor Day 5K Run and Parade. I participated in the 5K Run, and it was quite warm and humid that morning. Following the race, I went home to relax and get ready for the family cookout in the afternoon. After lunch, the skies began to darken, which prompted me to turn on the Weather Channel. There I saw the local forecast and radar from Fort Dix. It showed quite a wide and long line of strong to severe thunderstorms rolling through Eastern Pennsylvania into Western Jersey. Warnings were issued. Within the next hour, winds would begin to pick up. Then, things became very serious.

The wind chimes in the front and back of the house started clinging and clanging wildly. The two cats we had at the time became unnerved and began scurrying around the house. I could see debris flying in the front of the house. The family including the cats huddled in the dining room. We held on to the cats in an effort to keep them calm. Nobody dared to go outside and stayed away from the windows. Within a short while, the storm passed and the sun came back out. Residents in South Plainfield as well as other parts of the state, which had come together to celebrate an annual tradition in the town were left to pick up the pieces from downed trees and tree limbs, and other property damage.

It was one of the most memorable storms to roll through Northwestern Middlesex County in my memory. The Labor Day Derecho of 1998 still ranks high even with recent storms such as Hurricane Irene, Holiday Blizzard 2010, and the Severe Weather Outbreak of September 2010.

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