Hurricane Sandy worst-case for NYC is “unimaginable”

It seems that Hurricane Sandy is this year’s October Surprise. Who knew that the climate wanted to be player in this presidential election after all, instead of just a pretend player in the next?

And now in actual news, this from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. What’s the worst case for NYC? As Mike Tidwell writes, it’s “unimaginable” (my emphasis and some reparagraphing throughout):

What might Hurricane Sandy do to New York City? See excerpts below from my 2006 book The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities (Simon and Schuster/Free Press). It’s a depressing title meant to help shock us into preventing these worst-case scenarios from coming true via global climate change.

But it might now be too late for parts of imperiled New York. As you read, keep in mind that as of Sunday night October 28th, the National Hurricane Center was forecasting that the storm could hit anywhere between Delaware and Rhode Island, with a surge tide as high as 11 feet in some places. Even if New York City avoids a direct strike, it is still facing a potentially “worst-case scenario” in terms of surge tides.

Now to the book excerpt. He writes about how Hurricane Gloria was a perfectly designed “soft landing” (note the part about low tide):

The New York area got lucky. The storm struck at low tide. It came when the ocean had conveniently lowered itself a full five feet in relation to the land, down from the high tide mark of just six hours earlier. This created perfect conditions for a “soft landing.” Had she arrived at the peak of high tide, then Gloria would have poured water across much of Long Island, inundating several subway stations, contaminating underground electrical and phone cables, and filling every basement and cellar from Canal Street south.

This time the city may not be so fortunate. New York sees very few hurricanes, being so far north. But those that do, do terrible damage. The author offers this about the 1821 hurricane:

[E]very 40-70 years, a major storm does slam into the New York City region. The great hurricane of 1821 passed right over Manhattan and basically cut the city in two, with the Hudson and East Rivers merging all the way up to Canal Street. At the Battery, shocked city dwellers watched as water rose as fast as 13 feet in one hour. Saving the city from total annihilation was the storm’s lucky arrival, like Gloria, at low tide.

LaGuardia and JFK under water; everything underground flooded

Tidwell says New York has worse geography than New Orleans when it comes to disaster potential. Here’s just some of the problems he notes:

The basic geography of New York City makes it a worst-case landing strip for any major hurricane. The city sits at the vertex of a giant right angle created by the land platform of Long Island and the northern shore of New Jersey.

In the middle, looking like a huge catch basin, is New York Harbor, the gateway to the city. In the face of a major storm surge, the harbor acts as a funnel. The wall of seawater will plow into the harbor and then roar up the Hudson and East Rivers where it will become suddenly trapped. It’ll get backed into a corner with nowhere to go. Nowhere, that is, except up. In an eye blink, the runways of LaGuardia and JFK airports could be under 18 feet of water or more.

Compounding matters is the fact that New York sits on an extremely shallow continental shelf which causes any surge to pile up on itself even before it reaches the city. These factors together give Gotham some of the highest storm-surge values in the United States.

In addition, everything below street level will flood (like New Orleans, much of the city us below sea level). That means subways, sewers, parking garages, utility tunnels will flood. Also the Holland Tunnel and the Battery Tunnel. (Care to be driving when that one hits?) And be sure to note the part about hurricanes winds doubling at about the 30-story level.

Post–global warming storm damage even worse than this

There’s also a global warming aspect to the problem, as John touched on earlier. By 2050, we could have a meter (three-plus feet) of sea rise worldwide. (I actually shared a long plane ride last week with a NASA scientist working to measure worldwide ocean levels using satellite data — fascinating and scary stuff.) For example:

But if that’s what it’ll take, we should prepare ourselves for what could be an economic wound and humanitarian crisis that outstrips all the images and impacts of September 11th and Katrina combined.

If a really big storm hits New York City after it’s been softened up (and soddened) by global warming, the results will be much worse than in a year like this one. And that doesn’t take into account the increased severity of the storms themselves, as global warming makes our planet more … interesting (in the Chinese-curse sense).

So two points before I leave. First, do click over to Tidwell’s article and read the whole piece. I’ve not done this justice; there’s more. Second, you in New York, do stay safe and don’t underestimate the potential for real disaster. Not blackout-disaster; Katrina-disaster. Our hopes and prayers are with you all.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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