Remembering The Wild Weather Of November 1989

By Greg Machos
July 13, 2012

Continuing to look back on memorable severe weather outbreaks to affect the Garden State, GWC recalls the wild weather of November 1989. Nearly two months after Hurricane Hugo made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, and a month after the devastating earthquake in the Loma Prieta section of San Francisco, severe weather roared through New Jersey as well as much of the Northeast on two occasions.

The first incident was on Thursday, November 16, 1989 when a cold front that stretched through much of the eastern half of the United States, spawned all kinds of severe weather including tornadoes from as far south as Alabama into Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The second incident occurred four days later on Monday, November 20, 1989 when a cold front accompanied by a powerful low pressure system spawned severe thunderstorms with winds of up to 80 miles per hour across parts of the Garden State.

As a result of the stormy duo, temperatures dropped dramatically over the next few days, and there wound up being snow on Thanksgiving. Approximately 4.7 inches of the white stuff fell in New York while about a half of a foot fell in Newark. Those marks made it the snowiest Thanksgiving on record in those areas. I remember all three of those storms very well although I thought that there was a bit of a gap between the first and second storms. At the time, I was taking three classes at night over at Middlesex County College.

On the morning of November 16th, I woke up to the sound of a howling wind outside. The powerful winds drew my curiosity. I turned on the news, and saw reports coming out of Huntsville, Alabama of a devastating tornado there. Those storms had occurred less than 24 hours earlier. According to a report by the National Weather Service office there, the storm struck at about 4:30 PM in the afternoon, and was officially declared an EF4 tornado. It damaged about 80 businesses, 3 churches, over 1,000 cars, 259 homes, and a dozen apartment buildings. The twister left 21 people dead, another 463 were injured, and about $250 million in damage.

I went outside to take in more of the ferocious wind. These winds were strong. I watched as the trees frantically swayed in the wind. At one point, the winds seemed to have some extra to them as if they were a baseball pitcher ready to unleash his best fastball. The experience was scary and exciting at the same time. I went back inside to listen to the radio, which gave reports of storms moving through the area. When all was said and done, there were reports of 22 tornadoes in the Northeastern United States including 8 in New York, 7 in New Jersey, and 4 in Eastern Pennsylvania according to a report given by the National Weather Service Office in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. One of the most notable impacts from this storm system was a school in Newburgh, New York, which lost seven children when a wall collapsed on them during a lunch break.

The severe weather took a break for several days before striking back with a vengeance. Another powerful storm system barreled into the major cities along the Eastern seaboard during the evening of November 20th. Severe thunderstorms unleashed high winds in excess of 80 miles per hour across Central Jersey with plenty of lightning. On that evening, I was at Middlesex County College taking a Calculus class. When I came out of the building where my class took place, the winds suddenly picked up. Being only about 150 pounds at the time didn't make things easier. The winds literally carried me to my car. Driving home, I listened to the radio reports of Severe Thunderstorm Warnings being issued while l could see lightning flashes outside.

Getting home safely, I continued to monitor reports on television. The Monday Night Football game between the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos was quite memorable. As the storm pushed through Washington, D.C., strong winds began to pick up all kinds of debris in the stadium. The game continued on through the maelstrom though. These two days were the stormiest days in November on record in New Jersey. These two dates alone combined for 57 severe weather/damage reports. Thirty-three reports were filed on November 20th while another 24 were filed on November 16th. The number of incidents as well as tornado occurrences were unprecedented for this time of year in the Garden State. Severe weather season usually peaks in July and August in New Jersey and New York.

Papers on both outbreaks were written by forecasters from the National Weather Service. The paper on the November 20th outbreak was published first in April 1993 while the paper on the November 16th outbreak was published in June 1994. Jet streaks, regions of maximum wind speed greater than the rest of the jet stream, played a pivotal role in the severe storms that occurred on the 16th. Meanwhile, a tight thermal gradient (area of temperature difference) along with strong west-northwesterly winds perpendicular to the thermal gradient produced cold air advection that created enough instability to spawn the outbreak on the 20th.

Low pressure ranging from 983 to 988 mb (about 29.02 to 29.18 inches of Hg) in the province of Ontario, Canada had an accompanying cold front that drove into what was very stable and dry air with temperatures in the 30s and 40s along with dew points in the 20s on November 20th. The low, which had the pressure of a Category One Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, produced strong winds and significant wind shear that helped fuel development of the severe thunderstorms. In the outbreak of November 16th, jet streaks near the surface and in the upper levels of the atmosphere provided the spark for the severe weather and tornadoes. The jet streak near the surface produced the essential shear while the upper level jet streak created instability in the atmosphere.

These two storm systems finally ushered in winter in Central Jersey. Thanksgiving had a look more of Christmas with a rare significant snowfall. The drop in temperature from the cold air advection that took place during the November 20th outbreak made it cold enough to support snow. I remember walking around town during the snow and marveling about the timing of it.

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