Remembering Juan, Halifax’s hurricane

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With early forecasts of an “above average” hurricane season playing out as predicted, even the most optimistic of Nova Scotian mariners has to wonder if another unwelcomed weather surprise is in the cards.

A year ago Sept. 29, Hurricane Juan made landfall near Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia. Although meteorologists designated Juan a Category 2 hurricane (sustained winds 96 to 110 mph), the storm caused the damage expected of a Category 3 (111-130 mph). Storm surge caused evacuations, docks were torn up and pleasure boats sank at their moorings. On land, swaths of forests were leveled, as were barns and power lines. Juan’s mark is as one of the most powerful and damaging hurricanes to ever strike Canada.

A year later, scientists in both Canada and the United States continue to search for answers as to why the damage — estimated at around $76 million (U.S.) — was so severe.

Regardless, the Nova Scotian marine community was largely caught by surprise. Juan showed that hurricane preparedness isn’t so much about forecasting as it is about understanding what to expect. And what to expect is sobering information indeed. Here is an account of the warnings so few paid any attention to until it was too late.

Sept. 25, noon — A tropical depression began to form 292 miles southeast of Bermuda.

Six hours later, it gathered the strength of a tropical storm. The Hurricane Committee of the World Meteorological Organization reviewed their list of potential hurricane names. On the top of that list was the name “Juan.”

Michel Ravitsky, a Frenchman working in Cuba, wasn’t the least bit concerned about weather. Having experienced numerous hurricanes in the Caribbean, he left his 42-foot aluminum-hulled sloop, Skantzoura, safely moored at the Armdale Yacht Club in Halifax.

Halifax was notorious for providing a safe haven during hurricane season. In fact, for as long as the locals could remember, hurricanes that brewed over tropical waters always waned once they tracked north and hit the colder waters of Canada’s Atlantic coast.

What Ravitsky didn’t know was this: Nova Scotia was seeing an unusually warm ocean-surface water temperature that season. It was 18 degrees Celsius, (64 degrees F), 3 degrees higher than what a hurricane needs to weaken in the region.

Sept. 26 — The winds of Tropical Storm Juan began to exceed 39 mph so it was upgraded to a hurricane. Juan forced the cancellation of all flights in and out of Bermuda.

Sept. 27 — Juan continued due north. The straight track set up the worst possible seas while the northward track set up a bad surge destined for the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia.

Sunday, Sept. 28, 3 p.m. — Halifax officials sent out a public warning suggesting that residents take precautions by securing loose items. The warning also mentioned that winds could damage trees and may cause power outages.

Few Halifax residents paid attention. Even Jim Christian, a Marine Communications and Traffic Services (Halifax Traffic) employee whose shift would coincide with Juan’s landfall, was nonplussed. “Hurricanes always peter out. We weren’t expecting much out of the ordinary.”

Ron Sabadash, who keeps his 37-foot O’Day, Eclipse, at the Dartmouth Yacht Club, on the eastern shore of Halifax Harbour, said, “I had no expectation of what the damage might be. I kept my dodger and bimini on, and left her tied to a finger wharf.”

Ron Wood, commodore-elect at the Bedford Basin Yacht Club — at the head of the harbor — along with about 30 members, planned to watch the storm from the club under a large lawn awning.

However, David Gough, who has sailed for 40 years, did take some precautions. A member of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron who keeps his boat at another club called the Waegwoltic, Gough moved his boat, Exuberance, to a mooring closer to shore.

9 p.m. — The storm surge was now expected to combine with a rising tide. Mayor Peter Kelly declared a State of Local Emergency, effective immediately, and required that residents in low-lying coastal areas within 6 vertical feet of the high-water mark leave their homes.

Tugs were then pre-positioned in Halifax Harbour. Some of the larger ships had already headed out to sea.

11 p.m. — Christian at Halifax Traffic reported that the radios were operational, but the winds were so strong (89 knots in the harbor) they had to shut down the radars. The Coast Guard ship, Earl Grey, reported that their gauge last registered 99 knots, before the needle was buried.

Christian noticed that the large windows of his office began to creak and bulge. He put the blinds down and pulled the curtains. “At that point, things got busy really fast,” he said.

Wearing his wet suit and standing on the sinking wharf of the Waegwoltic Club, Gough heard an escalating sound he described as similar to a jet airplane flying above his head. “It was then I realized that I must be standing in the middle of a hurricane.”

Bright green flashes filled the sky as transformers began to blow. Then the power went out and 300,000 homes and businesses were plunged into darkness. Many would be without electricity for close to two weeks. Gough could no longer see the mooring field, and rain exploded down around him.

At the Bedford Basin Yacht Club, the chain-and-anchor marina system began to undulate. Masts crossed each other and tangled. Everyone was ordered off the docks. Wood drove home on what he described as an “emerald carpet of shredded leaves, beautiful except for the branches flying horizontally at my car.”

Midnight — Ernie Fage, minister responsible for the province’s Emergency Measures Act, called Premier John Hamm who was waiting out the storm at his rural home in Pictou County. He told the premier, “Our worst fears are being realized.”

12:10 a.m. — Juan, now a Category 2 hurricane, made landfall between Prospect and Peggy’s Cove on Nova Scotia’s south shore, about 16 miles south-southwest of Halifax. The eye measured 20 to 25 miles in diameter. The winds raged at 85 knots (98 mph) sustained with gusts of 100 knots (115 mph).

Juan did not slow down as it tracked toward Halifax. In its wake, Herring Cove, a tiny community where Halifax Traffic’s Christian lives, was devastated. Fishermen lost their gear, their boats, their sheds and their wharves, only weeks before the lucrative lobster season was to open.

12:24 a.m. — The eastern eye wall passed right over Halifax Harbour. It was accompanied by 30-foot waves at the mouth and 6-1/2 feet of water, breaking all local water level records. “The surge looked like a big rising roll of a carpet that you shake,” said Christian.

Seventy percent (or 75,000) of the trees of a 185-acre park at the harbor’s entrance toppled. Roofs were blown off. Two people, one a paramedic in his ambulance, were killed in separate vehicles by downed trees. Two fishermen were lost near Anticosti Island in Quebec’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. Later, three more would die in a house fire presumed started with a candle during the power outage.

1 a.m. — Winds began to shift from southeast to south, lifting the floodgate. Halifax Harbour started to drain back into the Atlantic.

3 a.m. — Christian at Halifax Traffic received numerous distress calls including those from the Mar II, a wooden two-masted tour boat that had sought shelter behind McNabs Island — at the mouth of Halifax Harbour — but ended up washed ashore in the surge with two crewmembers on board; a container ship that broke free and was dangling by one remaining bow line; and from Larinda, a visiting 64-foot replica of a 1767 Boston schooner that had been holed when an unmanned ex-Canadian Navy vessel, the HMCS Sackville, broke free. The Larinda sank at the wharf, a complete write-off. (See January 2004 Home Waters, Page 6.)

Christian took a flashlight and stepped outside. “The scene was apocalyptic. Power poles snapped in two or three places: wires everywhere, downed trees. And then I spotted our flag. Throughout the night it fluttered, then beat, and then became ramrod stiff. After that the flag grew shorter and shorter as the threads were ripped away. Now all that was left was the rope that held it to the pole.”

A Coast Guard ship shone a spotlight at what had been the Dartmouth Yacht Club. By then, the storm surge had wiped out the entire marina system. One by one, finger wharves with boats still attached began crunching into each other. After the wind changed direction, tangled clusters of boats were blown toward the breakwater or to shore.

Sabadash’s boat was one of them. A kitchen sink from a neighboring shed blew through Eclipse’s porthole.

At the Bedford Basin Yacht Club, over a dozen boats piled over the seawall and onto the lawn of a small apartment block. One of the boats was driven through patio doors into someone’s home.

Gough’s boat, which he thought was safe at the Waegwoltic on a close-to-shore mooring, was taken out by that club’s wharves. Exuberance ended up washed ashore, rudderless, at the end of the Northwest Arm.

“I’m not sure there was anywhere safe to put your boat,” said Gough. He even heard of someone who had heeded the warning and pulled his boat out of the water, only to have it crushed by a fallen tree in the driveway.

Sept. 29 — Ravitsky opened his e-mail in a remote part of Cuba and learned the worst: A hurricane had struck Nova Scotia. The devastating storm surge had cast Skantzoura high and dry on Halifax’s Regatta Point, still attached to her mooring. Through the night she had repeatedly smashed against the concrete wall, causing about $100,000 in damage.

What hurricane, he wonders?

Jim Jerram, Commodore for the Dartmouth Yacht Club said, “Cars and houses can be damaged and repaired, but boats are more that just possessions. They are dreams-come-true for most of us.”

With more than 100 of the 175 boats at the Dartmouth Yacht Club sustaining damage, Juan did its best to shatter a lot of dreams.