Hurricane Earl Mystery: Where Is the “East Coast,’ Exactly?

Today’s New York Times included a map of the possible path of Hurricane Earl—grazing North Carolina and Cape Cod on its way to Canada—with the caption reading “The East Coast is threatened by the biggest storm since Hurricane Bob in 1991.” 

Hurricane who, and when? Except for a few years in Beijing, I’ve lived my whole life within 50 miles of Atlantic tidal waters. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two big hurricanes that scored direct hits more recently than Bob and did as much damage. And plenty more of them have pounded points south. What gives?

The story proper suggested an explanation, in a quote from a National Hurricane Center expert: 

“This is the strongest hurricane to threaten the Northeast and New England since Hurricane Bob in 1991.”

So “East Coast,” in Timespeak, means “Northeast and New England.” Is this a real usage? It had never crossed my mind, as a native of Maryland, that I did not live on the East Coast. My home state was on the midpoint of the eastern side of the continental United States, where it touched the ocean. East, coast. East Coast. 

But the Census Bureau and Wikipedia confirm that nobody agrees about this. “East Coast,” in one interpretation, excludes the coastal states of the South. Still, it ought to include the mid-Atlantic. Except then the southern end of the Census version of the Middle Atlantic is Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So if you keep following that chain of arguable definitions, Maryland and Delaware end up in the same region as Miami, hurricane-wise.

Clearly, that’s nonsense. But until somebody publishes the Stylebook of All Creation (this is on my to-do list), “East Coast” is stuck being one of those terms that people use completely incoherently, like “last July.” Does it mean five weeks ago, or does it mean July of 2009? I’ve read lots of article drafts from lots of people through the years, and there is no agreement at all.

Anyway, if the Times wants to be pedantic, Hurricane Floyd did weaken into a tropical storm right about when it crossed into the Census Bureau’s version of the Middle Atlantic. But Tropical Storm Floyd killed two people in New York and created widespread disaster zones there . Is it worth skipping that history just to hype the apparently underwhelming Earl ?