The Insane Wind: The Wind-Tunnel Effect in New York and Historical Wind Storms

Yesterday, strong and relentless winds blew through the streets and urban canyons of New York, with occasional gusts as high as 55 to 60 mph. I spent much of the morning and afternoon working at home, and watching and hearing the trees sway so violently outside the windows made concentrating on my tasks too difficult. One of the dogs kept barking, so I had to leave the desk several times to calm it down. The loud noises made by some construction equipment across the street compounded the problem, and when I heard a big crash I went to the window to see that one of the crew's saw horses had blown into the intersection. By the end of the afternoon I felt like I needed a padded room. Fortunately, I had plans to go out to dinner, and spending a couple of hours inside a warm SoHo restaurant had the effect of keeping me sane for a few more hours. Walking in the wind to and from dinner, although still feeling vulnerable amidst flying objects, seemed less terrifying than staying inside and listening to the winds rip around the building.

With the presence of so many tall buildings in the city, the conditions of gusty winds set up the phenomenon of the wind-tunnel effect. Wind trapped between buildings is forced to accelerate. Several places within the city are famous for the velocity of the winds, most notably the Flatiron Building on 23rd and Fifth and Broadway. Near the tapered corner of this famous triangular architectural monument, skirts billow up, hats blow off heads, and it's hard to maintain an upright position.

Opening the digital archives of The New York Times reveals many reported incidents of terrifying wind storms in the city's history. One storm in February of 1893 was noted to have "several remarkable features," including 45 mph winds, a furious snow, and thunder and lightning. The dropping freezing temperatures and high winds caused particular problems with the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The boats became stuck in icy waters, forcing commuters to make some of the journey on the ice. Many Western Union telegraph wires went out of service. Poorly-built buildings in Brooklyn collapsed in a matter of minutes.

A storm that blew through the city in October of 1900 produced hurricane-force winds. As with our own storm yesterday, three deaths and many injuries were attributed to the windy conditions. The weather service reported a high gust of 73 mph at one point but with sustained winds of 36 mph for several hours. Like with many of these wind events, a cold front was rapidly passing through, and temperatures dropped dramatically in a short time. The Times reported that many windows blew out, horses became frightened and ran off, a fence toppled onto several children at play. The newspaper reported a stunning-looking double rainbow in the eastern sky after the frontal passage.

An account of a "furious wind storm" reported in the February 26, 1909 edition of the Times includes a long list of accidents, including a mention of the wind tunnel effect - "Down Broadway, the wind swept to the Battery, where the skyscrapers made a funnel, through which the gale spilled itself out over the harbor." During the course of the storm, a 600-pound statue of the Angel Gabriel blew off St. John's Cathedral onto the roof but with no major damage. A flagpole on top of a bank at Broadway and 32nd Street broke off, flew in the air, hit a cornice where it cracked in two, and debris flew everywhere. A pedestrian was knocked cold by a piece of flying flagpole but, according to the Times, was treated and able to walk home. According to the report, "Broadway had no end of trouble," with many glass doors and windows blown out in the storm. Uptown, an 11-year-old boy was blown off his feet, and when he came down to earth he fell under a passing hearse. He survived.

For the Times account of the wind event yesterday, read "Disruption and Death Accompany High Winds" in today's newspaper.


SandyVoice said...

I used to live near Grace Church on Broadway at 10th St. Normally, I would get off the train at Broadway and 8th St. and walk three blocks up Broadway to get home. On windy days, especially if there was any ice on the ground, the dog leg at 10th St. was impassable (probably still is), so I'd walk across 8th St. to University, up to my block, and cut back. That added the equivalent of 4 blocks to my trip, on a cold Winter's day, but it was the only way to go. I love listening to wind when I'm indoors with a cup of cocoa, but it's hard to travel in New York when it's blowing like yesterday!

Terry B said...

One of many theories about the origin of the phrase "twenty-three skidoo" has to do with the winds and resulting billowing skirts around the Flatiron when it was being built. Allegedly it was what police officers told men hanging around the intersection hoping to catch a glimpse of an ankle, essentially meaning "scram." There are other explanations that predate this and therefore make it less than likely, but it's still my favorite story.

Teri Tynes said...

SandyVoice- Thanks for the story of your windy day routine. I can picture your walk exactly and totally understand.

Terry B- I held back mentioning the 23 skidoo story for lack of space so I'm glad you've added it here.

Anonymous said...

I waslk past Grand Central Station everyday on 46th Street on my way to work, and yesterday's wind's were so insane I had trouble finding air to breathe.