Over the coming years, Delaware is projected to face higher temperatures, more high-heat days, increased heavy precipitation and sea level rise. The impacts from each of these threatens industries, infrastructure, natural resources and health of residents, according to Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).
That means greater risks of floods and other disasters as time progresses. We’ve told you what to do to prepare for flooding in the First State, but what about other natural disasters? Here’s what Delaware experts have to say about hurricanes, cyclones and the weather Delaware experiences during tropical storms.
At 60 feet above sea level, Delaware is somewhat cradled along the East Coast—to the south by Virginia and the Carolinas and to the north by New Jersey. So by the time a tropical system like a hurricane reaches us, it’s typically already crossed over some land and lost steam.
“Except for Sandy, it’s been forever since we’ve had any storm that’s really come up and made a turn close to Delaware,” says Dan Leathers, Delaware’s state climatologist and a professor at UD.
Storms like Sandy (2012) and Irene (2011) brought severe winds and flooding to areas of Delaware. Tropical Storm Isaias in 2020 caused tornadoes, power outages and the state’s first hurricane-related fatality since 2011. High levels of rain and wind from the remnants of Hurricane Ida last October created catastrophic damage and massive flooding throughout the state.
Hurricanes are “powerhouse weather events that suck heat from tropical waters to fuel their fury,” as described by the National Ocean Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The ocean-born storms need a handful of ingredients to catalyze, like a pre-existing weather disturbance (a tropical wave, for example) and a combo of wind, warm water and thunderstorms.
The resulting cocktail can be devastating. This rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms is called a tropical cyclone; when it creates wind speeds of 74 miles per hour, it’s classified as a hurricane.
The midlatitude cyclones—low-pressure storm systems easily identified on satellite pictures by their likeness to a comma—are our bigger thorn in the side, Leathers says. Typically popping up during winter months, they can dump mass precipitation (e.g., blizzard conditions) over large swaths of land.
“Two historical instances in Lewes brought the top two highest tidal heights, both from mid-latitude cyclones—one that occurred back in January of 2016 and the other one the 1962 storm, which we’re coming up on the 60th anniversary,” he says.
“Due to rising sea levels, the storms of today will bring higher tidal levels from storms than the storms of yesterday,” Leathers adds. “The same storm today is liable to cause bigger problems than in years past.”
Adds Trivedi: Not every disaster is the same. “It can be easy to approach these as a hurricane is a hurricane is a hurricane, but just look at Ida. Everyone was so hyper-focused on it hitting New Orleans, and for very good reasons. And then instead, it swung up and really devastated neighborhoods in Philly and in Wilmington [with] massive flooding. People remain displaced out of their homes to this day.”