1938 Hurricane

What's In Store For New York's Future?

According to the United States Landfalling Hurricane Probability Project: (Updated May 2013)

A major obstacle to overcome is public complacency. Approximately 78.5% of current New York State coastal residents have never experienced a major hurricane (Hughes). One must remember that in 1938, Long Island was mostly undeveloped. The next time a major hurricane hits, it will be impacting a highly-urbanized region. The last two hurricanes were mild in comparison to the Great Hurricane of 1938. August 19, 1991, Hurricane Bob (category 2) brushed the eastern tip of Long Island and moved into southeastern New England. Because most of Long Island was on the western side of the storm, winds were category 1 strength and the storm surge was minimal.

September 27, 1985, Hurricane Gloria (category 1*) moved across the center of Long Island causing much tree damage and beach erosion. Initially, the National Hurricane Center rated Gloria as a category 3 when it made landfall but a later analysis revealed Gloria was only a category one. In informal surveys, most people believe that Gloria was a "major hurricane" so there is a misguided sense that Long Island can withstand "strong" hurricanes with only minor inconveniences because few have ever experienced a major hurricane. 15 Costliest Hurricanes

Christopher Landsea, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Research Division, and Roger A. Pielke, a social scientist at NCAR, looked at the most destructive U.S. hurricanes on record and predicted the cost if these storms were to hit today. The diagram to the right shows quite clearly that the northeast U.S., especially the Long Island and New York City regions, would suffer greatly. Of the 15 "worst" storms, Long Island would be affected by five of them and the 1938 hurricane today would be considered the 6th costliest of all time. In 1998 dollars, the damage would be nearly $18 billion. Of all the natural disasters in the United States, hurricanes account for about two-thirds of the insured property losses (USGS, 1998).

When combined with rising sea levels due to climate change, storm surge inundation (which causes more than 90% of the casualties in hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones) will be more common and more extensive. As the population grows and building accelerates near coastal locations, the economic damage from storms will increase. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, was the single largest natural disaster loss in the history of the U.S. insurance industry. Insurance companies paid $41 billion arising from 1.7 million claims for damage to homes, businesses and vehicles to policyholders in six states. "While 2005 was by far the worst year ever for insured catastrophe losses in the U.S., future storms could prove even costlier, reaching upwards of $100 billion," said Dr. Robert Hartwig, an economist and president of the Insurance Information Institute. In the United States alone, the value of coastal property exposed to hurricanes increased by 24 percent, or $1.7 trillion, from $7.2 trillion in 2004 to $8.9 trillion by year-end 2007, according to AIR Worldwide (Insurance Information Institute, 2008). New York state is second only behind Florida for the amount of insured coastal property.

Value of Insured Coastal Property in the US
Value of insured coastal property vulnerable to hurricanes in the U.S.

Experts now believe that after Miami and New Orleans, New York City is considered the third most dangerous major city for the next hurricane disaster. According to a 1990 study by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the city has some unique and potentially lethal features. New York's major bridges such as the Verrazano Narrows and the George Washington are so high that they would experience hurricane force winds well before those winds were felt at sea-level locations. Therefore, these escape routes would have to be closed well before ground-level bridges (Time, 1998). The two ferry services across the Long Island Sound would also be shut down 6-12 hours before the storm surge invaded the waters around Long Island, further decreasing the potential for evacuation.

A storm surge prediction program used by forecasters called SLOSH (Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes) has predicted that in a category 4 hurricane, John F. Kennedy International Airport would be under 20 feet of water and sea water would pour through the Holland and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels and into the city's subways throughout lower Manhattan. The report did not estimate casualties, but did state that storms "that would present low to moderate hazards in other regions of the country could result in heavy loss of life" in the New York City area (Time, 1998).

Some of the key observations from the storm surge maps for Nassau and Suffolk Counties:

Given public complacency, the amount of people needed to evacuate, the few evacuation routes off Long Island, and the considerable area affected by storm surge, more lead-time is needed for a proper evacuation than in other parts of the country. However, east coast hurricanes are normally caught up in the very fast winds aloft, called the jet stream, so they can move up the coast at great speeds - much faster than hurricanes that impact the southern U.S. In fact, the 1938 Hurricane moved at forward speeds in excess of 60 mph. To this day the Long Island Express holds the forward speed record for any Atlantic hurricane.

Surviving "Day One" of the hurricane is only part of the concern. Most people away from the coast believe that they are far enough inland to be safe from hurricanes. In one sense that is true for the immediate effects of the hurricane. However, most of these inland residents fail to realize that their daily lives will be severely impacted for weeks or months. Employees will not be able to get to work due to downed trees and widespread power outages may shut down the economy for quite a long time. According to the LIPA Forecasts Hurricane Outages & Recovery, Sept. 10, 2003, a direct hit by a Category 3 hurricane could cause some 750,000 to 1,000,000 power outages island-wide. And, it could take 15 to 30 days to restore service to all customers, or at least to those customers whose homes or businesses were not destroyed.

LIPA Forecasts Hurricane Outages & Recovery
Source: LIPA (2003)

LIPA also lists LI Hurricanes and Tropical Storms with 100,000 or More Customers Affected 1971 to 2008.

The following information from the Suffolk County Multi-Jurisdictional Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan (2007) is publically available on the Regional Effort Supporting mitigation Planning On Natural Disasters (RESPOND) Web site and offers projections of the damage following a category 3 (100 year) and category 4 (500 year) hurricane landfall in Suffolk County. Population data is based on the year 2000 census.

Population in Storm Surge Inundation Zones
Estimated Building Damages in Suffolk County
Estimated Residential Damages in Suffolk County
Estimated Commercial Damages in Suffolk County

Table 32 shows that the total cost of a category 3 hurricane to residential and commercial properties ranges between $11 and $14 billion while the damage to these structures in a category 4 storm would be $68 to $73 billion.

All of these factors point to a likely future disaster in Suffolk County.

Is Long Island prepared? Read this excellent Long Island Press story to find out.

Hurricane Climatology

Scott A. Mandia, Professor - Physical Sciences
T-202 Smithtown Sciences Bldg.
mandias@sunysuffolk.edu <-- PREFERRED CONTACT METHOD

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