As Hurricane Lee worked its way up the New England coast in September 2023, Mainers were prepared but far from panicked about what might be coming. That’s because Maine has seen its fair share of storms over the years. Keep reading to learn about the 10 worst storms to hit Maine.
A Brief Look at Hurricane Lee
This storm brought the first Hurricane Watch to the Maine coastline since 2008. Also, it triggered Tropical Storm Warnings along part of our famed coastline with a wind span of more than 350 miles wide.
Additionally, Lee capitalized on two elements that Maine usually doesn’t deal with during massive storms. First, the leaves are still on the trees — most storms hit well after the fall foliage drops. And, the ground is waterlogged after a rainy start to September and the wet summer. Second, Lee didn’t bring snow as many nor’easters bring a mix of rain, snow, and ocean swells.
That said, Lee still might not make the biggest storms of all time in Maine, but here are some of the biggest hurricanes and post-tropical systems since 1850.
#10 Hurricane Belle
Aug. 9, 1976
Hurricane Belle was a post-tropical storm that churned from York County to Aroostook County, wiping out $4 million in potato crops ($21.5 million in 2023 currency). Since harvest season for potatoes is September and October, this storm flooded fields and left crops vulnerable to rot.
The flooding also kept farmers from being able to harvest whatever was salvageable. More than 10,000 acres were impacted.
While Belle was certainly not one of the largest storms to hit Maine, it shows how penetrating these storms can be with the right atmospheric conditions.
#9 Hurricane Irene
Aug. 28, 2011
The setup for Hurricane Irene is eerily similar to Hurricane Lee in the sense that the ground was already saturated as the storm moved in. Irene is different from Lee in that the 2011 storm also impacted the western part of the state. Franklin, Lincoln, Oxford, and York counties were hit hardest.
When Irene entered Maine as a tropical storm, she was prepared to drop an unthinkable 4 to 10 inches of rain in 24 hours. Rivers, including the Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers, experienced moderate to major flooding, leading to evacuations and property damage. Two people died in Maine from Hurricane Irene.
#8 Hurricane Floyd
Sept. 16, 1999
Hurricane Floyd was a tropical storm that caused $1.2 million in damage in September 1999. Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Oxford, and Somerset Counties were hit the hardest.
The most significant impact of Hurricane Floyd in Maine was heavy rainfall. Some areas of the state received over 1 foot of rain, causing widespread flooding. The prolonged rainfall saturated the ground, leading to river flooding and road closures. Major flooding happened on the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers.
Also, winds were sustained up to 60 mph, leading to trees blocking already flooded roads.
#7 Saxby Gale
Oct. 4, 1869
The Saxby Gale, occurring in October 1869, is a legendary storm that impacted the East Coast of North America, including Maine. Named after British naval instructor Lieutenant Stephen Saxby, who made surprisingly accurate predictions based on celestial alignments, this storm was a meteorological mystery. It happened long before a National Weather Service or National Hurricane Center existed.
Striking on Oct. 4, the Saxby Gale was a potent extratropical cyclone that coincided with a full moon, leading to devastating consequences. The storm unleashed hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, and storm surges along the Maine coastline. Islands, such as Mount Desert Island, were heavily affected with substantial flooding and destruction.
Notably, this storm showed the vulnerability of the Bay of Fundy too, which has the world’s highest tidal range. When a storm hits during high tide, it can be catastrophic for neighboring communities. This is another place to keep an eye on during Hurricane Lee’s approach.
#6 Hurricane Donna
Sept. 12, 1960
Hurricane Donna beat up eastern seaboard states from Florida to Maine, and even North Maine was reeling from the effects of the storm, which came ashore as a tropical storm in Cumberland County.
The storm became post-tropical as it worked across the Pine Street State. It brought strong gusts exceeding 100 mph in some coastal areas. And, $250,000 in damage was done across the state.
#5 Hurricane Gloria
Sept. 28, 1985
Hurricane Gloria was the “Storm of the Century” for Connecticut. In Maine, Gloria’s oddity was how it moved inland and cut a path through the Maine Lakes & Mountains and the Maine Highlands of the state.
While Gloria did the most damage to our New England neighbors and the Outer Banks, Southern and Central Maine were impacted by heavy rain and winds that knocked down trees and left 250,000 people in the dark for up to two weeks.
Despite the disruption along Maine’s coastal communities, Hurricane Gloria wasn’t enough to force L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport to close.
#4 Hurricane Bob
Aug. 20, 1991
Because of the disastrous nature of the storm, the name “Bob” was retired from the hurricane names. Plus, Hurricane Bob was an anomaly for happening in August — before the height of hurricane season in September and October. It even gained headlines for being “the storm nobody took seriously.”
#3 The Portland Gale
Nov. 26, 1898
The Portland Gale of 1898 was a devastating maritime event with major impacts on Portland. A collision of a Great Lakes low-pressure system and the Gulf of Mexico storm created a mix of a hurricane, nor’easter, and blizzard.
Winds howled at hurricane force, reaching 70 mph. The gale unleashed torrential rain and snow, causing immense destruction. Coastal communities suffered extensive damage with ships being tossed like toys.
The storm was named for the S.S. Portland, unaware of the tropical system entering New England waters. As many as 245 people went down with the ship — most passengers were heading home to Boston after Thanksgiving.
#2 Hurricane Carol
Aug. 31, 1954
Hurricanes Carol and Edna usually go hand in hand, but we want to walk you through each one and its impact on Maine.
Hurricane Carol was up first, hitting on Aug. 31 at a Category 1, less than two weeks before Edna. As Carol moved inland, flooding happened across the state.
Augusta clocked winds up to 80 mph. From the mountains to the shore, three people were killed, and $10 million in damage was done, which is about $100 million in today’s market.
She was the costliest storm in Maine’s history… for the next 10 days.
#1 Hurricane Edna
Sept. 11, 1954
Merely 10 days after Carol’s onslaught, Hurricane Edna roared ashore in Maine on Sept. 11, 1954. This Category 1 hurricane unleashed its fury, bringing torrential rains, high winds, and more coastal flooding. Edna compounded the damage already inflicted by Carol, leaving communities grappling with the double blow.
Knox County was particularly hit hard, with the Rockland/Rockport drive-in theater being smashed to bits. Eight people died, including an 8-year-old girl who lost her father’s grip while being rescued from a flooded river in Unity.
Edna’s winds were so powerful that the Little River Lighthouse in Cutler Harbor was moved 8 feet from its bolted foundation. The lighthouse was repaired and still stands as a beacon of hope and tourism, as it’s one of the few lighthouses in Maine where you can stay overnight.
Maine’s Storm Stories
During our research, one thing that stood out was the lack of specific information about how storms impacted Maine. This was especially true when the storms first affected larger cities like Boston or New York.
As Mainers, we should keep the storm stories alive to prepare new generations for the inherent risks that come with our precious lands — from the tip of Matinicus to the potato fields of The County. It’s a good time to get involved in discussions about coastal erosion and protecting our coastal landmarks.