Was Irene LeMessurier’s Citicorp Hurricane?

 As the path of Hurricane Irene played out on the TV weather broadcasts showing a trajectory up the eastern seaboard including pretty much a direct interection with New York City, I thought;  ” Could this be the LeMessurier hurricane?”   Irene was heating up with Category 2 winds and some forecasters and models indicated it had the potential to reach a Category 3.   At that point, I couldn’t help but think about the late William LeMessurier and the story of the Citicorp Center “design flaw” that he discovered with the help of a student in June of 1978.

If you have never heard the story, you might want to read the acclaimed article The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis by Joe Morgenstern published in The New Yorker in May of 1995.  In a nutshell, LeMessurier discovered quite by accidnent while thinking about a question posed by a college student that the Citicorp  Center had not been checked for the impact of quartering winds on the unique base column configuration and large diagonal braces.  To make matters worse, there had been changes made to the diagonal brace connections during the fabrication phase as the result of a cost and time savings suggestion by the steel erector.  These structural changes actually compounded the problem and made the building  more susceptible to failure by wind.

The story plays out during a newspaper blackout that was the result of a labor strike which kept the information from going public.  To his credit (although not everyone agrees with that statement), LeMessurier orchestrates an education and information campaign with Citicorp and local code officials, skillfully designs welded plate reinforcements for the diagonal brace connections, supervises the repairs and even negotiates a settlement with Citicorp that does not result in any follow up litigation.  Many years follow until  Morgenstern interviews LeMessurier and takes the story public.

But my question about Irene being the  hurricane of LeMessurier’s nightmare relates back to the part of the story where he and others raced to complete the Citicorp repairs, in part because of the fear that a hurricane was the one event that could produce the magnitude of winds that could bring down the building.  Toward the end of the repairs, Hurricane Ella gave LeMessurier a scare but eventually veered off harmlessly into the Atlantic.

By now you know that Irene did not veer off  but it was not the LeMessurier hurricane.  It had the right track, but not the punch.   Irene was not the Long Island Express of September 1938, a hurricane that  had sustained winds of 121 mph and gusts up to 186 mkp when measured at the Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts.  It wasn’t even a Carol, the Cat 3 hurricane that pounded the eastern end of Long Island in 1954.  In the end, it was a Cat 1 storm with lots of water and storm surge but not enough wind to measure up to the LeMessurier storm… that never happened.

Read more about Irene

Irene Targeting the East Coast


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