National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce


This loop shows the surface low track during the Great Storm Surge Flood of February 2, 1976.  Model forecast run was created by Jeff Auger and Sean Birkel of the University of Maine at Orono.


While few people likely remember the prognostication of the groundhog 40 years ago today, many residents along the Maine coast and in the inland city of Bangor, still remember what was to be a most unusual Groundhog Day, 40 years ago today, February 2, 1976.

The weather pattern was very stormy.  Low pressure had developed off the mid-Atlantic coast overnight and had moved rapidly northeastward to extreme southwestern Maine by early in the morning.  As the storm moved north-northeastward, it intensified rapidly causing very strong southerly winds to develop along Mid- and Downeast-coast of Maine. These strong winds continued during the morning hours as the storm tracked northward through western Maine.  The strong southerly winds caused ocean water to begin to pile up along the coast of Maine from Brunswick to Eastport, and sent a historic storm surge up the Penobscot River and into the city of Bangor.

For residents in the city of Bangor, while the day started out stormy with high winds and heavy rain, nobody had any idea of the dramatic events that were about to unfold.  Within hours the city would be hit hard by the highly unusual storm surge as it moved rapidly up the Penobscot River.  Due to the funneling effects of the Penobscot River, the surge grew as it approached the unsuspecting city of Bangor.

The flood waters rose rapidly as they reached downtown Bangor shortly after 11 am, reportedly flooding sections of the downtown area to a depth of 12 feet within 15 minutes.  With water rising at a rate of about 10 inches per minute, residents could do little to escape the frigid waters.  Many residents became trapped in their cars and in buildings.  Several workers who saw the rapidly rising water tried to rescue their vehicles from parking lots in the area, only to become trapped as their cars began to float.  Eventually, the cars began to sink and the occupants were forced to climb onto rooftops to await help.  In one case, a lady was forced to hop from car-rooftop to rooftop as successive cars sunk in the icy-cold waters.  Many people watched as, within 30 minutes, about 200 cars fell victim to the surge and disappeared into the rising flood waters.  Fortunately, thanks the heroic actions of some of the residents in the area, no one died in the storm.  However, many of the cars submerged in the flood waters were catastrophically damaged.  The surge also flooded the basements and lower floors of numerous buildings in the area, damaging bank vaults, electrical equipment and causing several fires.

Along the Maine coast, a storm surge of 3 to 5 feet combined with high winds and large waves to cause numerous problems.  In Southwest Harbor, the Coast Guard recorded a wind of 115 miles per hour during the morning.  High winds caused considerable damage to structures along the Downeast coast; some roofs were torn from buildings.  In addition to the surge, wind-driven waves estimated at 14 feet high damaged structures along the coast, some of which slid into the ocean
before being ripped apart by the pounding surf.

In Searsport, a large Japanese freighter that was anchored offshore awaiting a load of french fries, dragged its anchor and washed aground.  The freighter spent weeks awaiting a sufficiently high tide before it could be freed to return to the ocean.

The Bangor flood of February 2, 1976 was the result of several factors which happened to coincide on that date.  First, the sun, moon, and earth were generally in alignment, causing a very high astronomical tide.  Second, the extremely intense low pressure center that tracked west of the Penobscot River caused the very strong southerly winds to develop over the Penobscot Bay.  Third, the wind driven storm surge occurred near the time of high tide.  And fourth, the funneling effects of the Penobscot Bay and River allowed the surge to move up the river and grow as it headed toward the city of Bangor.  In addition, the heavy rain which accompanied the storm also likely contributed to the flood water.

While there is nothing that could prevent this extremely rare event from happening again, much more is known about storm surges than was known 30 years ago.  In fact, National Weather Service forecasters now have access to storm surge models to help predict the extent of flooding from coastal storms.  In addition, although the surge 40 years ago was not caused by a hurricane, the National Weather Services Hurricane Storm Surge Model is now used to map areas flooded by storm surges caused by hurricanes.

Where along the Maine coast do these hurricane storm surge models show the greatest threat of surges to be?  In case you couldn't guess, in and around the inland city of Bangor!

John Jensenius