IMAGE: 1938 HURRICANE DAMAGE
Leslie Jones  /  AP/Boston Public Library
A damaged ferry boat sits in shallow water in Providence, R.I., following the deadly hurricane of 1938 that hit the Northeast.
updated 5/22/2006 8:23:37 AM ET 2006-05-22T12:23:37

The Big Easy and the Big Apple are so far apart — geographically, culturally, economically — that as New Yorkers watched the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold, most simply assumed their city could never fall prey to such a calamity.

They were wrong.

New York City, Long Island and the New England coast have all been pounded by ferocious hurricanes in years past — and as the 2006 season shapes up meteorologists are concerned that the Northeast is ripe for a storm that could rival Katrina, at least in terms of property damage.

“I’ll be surprised if over the next five years a major hurricane doesn’t hit the northeastern United States,” said Joe Bastardi, an expert senior meteorologist for AccuWeather, a commercial forecaster based in State College, Pa.

Why? First, the Atlantic Ocean cycles through periods of high and low hurricane activity every few decades. And right now that cycle is near its peak.

On top of that, surface water temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean have been extraordinarily high for more than a year now. Hurricanes rev themselves up with heat from the ocean; the higher the water temperature, the more power the storm can generate.

Most forecasters put the odds of a major northeastern hurricane somewhat lower than Bastardi, but still well worth considering. There is a 7 percent chance of a hurricane making landfall somewhere between New York City and the southern suburbs of Boston this year, according to meteorologists at Colorado State University.

Once a century?
Records suggest that a Category 3 or larger hurricane strikes the Northeast about once a century.

The last period of intense hurricane activity ran from about 1930 to 1960. Three powerful hurricanes reached the Northeast during those decades — in 1938, 1944 and 1954. The most destructive one, the 1938 storm, killed 700 people and destroyed 63,000 homes on Long Island and throughout New England.

Storms like Hurricane Gloria, which hit Long Island and Connecticut in 1985, and Hurricane Bob, which went through Rhode Island and Massachusetts in 1991, were both moderate compared to the 1938 hurricane.

In the Northeast, a big hurricane’s destructive power comes less from its winds than the magnitude of the storm surge it delivers. The phenomenon has its origins out at sea, where a hurricane’s winds and low atmospheric pressure conspire to create a dome of water on the ocean’s surface beneath the storm. When the hurricane makes landfall, that pile of water washes ashore like a tsunami.

“After New Orleans, the worst area with respect to storm surge is Long Island and New York and the Northeast,” said Karen Clark, president and CEO of AIR Worldwide, an insurance industry consulting firm.

The 1938 ‘Express’
Survivors called the 1938 storm “The Long Island Express,” because it flooded coastal communities so suddenly and furiously. On the morning of Sept. 21, the storm was stalled off the coast of North Carolina and appeared to be breaking up. But suddenly the hurricane defied expectations, tripling its rate of forward motion from 20 mph to 60 mph and speeding across 425 miles of open ocean in seven hours. It made landfall at about 3 p.m. on Long Island, after brushing by the Jersey Shore and splintering the boardwalks of Atlantic City and other beach resorts.

Within an hour the ocean was surging over the dunes of Westhampton Beach, washing houses off their pilings and sweeping them inland. On Main Street in the village of Westhampton, a mile inland, the floodwaters reached a depth of 7 feet.

The hurricane quickly jumped across Long Island Sound to wreak destruction on yet another coast. From Old Saybrook, Conn., to Cape Cod, the sea rose up and swallowed everything along the coast. It picked up a house on Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts and sent it tumbling inland, tossing the family inside from floor to wall to ceiling and pounding them to death.

Thirteen people died in New Hampshire, including four women who were standing on a bridge gaping at the torrent below when the span suddenly collapsed.

More experience, more to damage
Things have changed a lot since 1938. Weather forecasting and communications have improved, so more people on Long Island and the New England coast will have a chance to prepare for and get out of the path of the next big hurricane.

But at the same time, there are many more people and buildings in harm’s way. If a hurricane similar to the 1938 storm were to hit today the cost could reach $100 billion, according to a study by AIR Worldwide. And that’s not even the worst case.

Long Island’s population, not including the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, has more than quintupled since 1938, from about 550,000 to almost 3 million. Oceanfront homes in places like East Hampton and Amagansett can sell for more than $10 million.

“Everyone wants to live by the water,” said Nicholas Coch, a professor at the Queens College branch of the City University of New York.

That’s a problem in the hours before a big storm, when everybody suddenly wants to get as far from the water as possible. Long Island traffic, already nightmarish on summer weekends, would be epic in the hours before a hurricane.

Many coastal communities will be extremely hard to evacuate quickly. Fire Island, a resort community with 50,000 residents on summer weekends, is connected to the mainland only by ferry. Long Beach, which lies on a barrier island just east of New York City, is connected to the mainland by just three bridges.

“If it’s a strong hurricane and it comes directly at Long Beach it’s going to be very, very difficult for us,” said city manager John Laffey.

JFK airport site was hit in 1893
And then there’s New York City. The 1938 hurricane delivered only a glancing blow to the Big Apple, buffeting the Empire State Building with gusts up to 120 mph but barely dimming the lights on Broadway, where shows went on as scheduled.

But in 1893 a hurricane came ashore in Jamaica Bay, near where JFK airport sits today. A cluster of saloons, casinos and resort hotels on a sandy spit of land called Hog Island was completely washed away. Even the island disappeared.

A few miles west of the hurricane’s eye, almost every building on Coney Island was destroyed. There was extensive flooding in Brooklyn and wind damage to many of the city’s innovative new skyscrapers, including the just-finished Metropolitan Life building.

Meteorologists estimate that the 1893 storm was only a category 2 hurricane.

“A 2 in New York City is bad news,” Coch said. “A 3 is a disaster and a 4 is a catastrophe.”

Coch earned the nickname “Dr. Doom” more than a decade ago for his insistent warnings about New York City’s vulnerability to hurricanes. He envisions hurricane-force winds stripping glass, antennas, air conditioning units and water tanks off tall buildings and sending them crashing into the streets. People trying to escape the bombardment by retreating into the subway would soon find the tunnels flooded.

NYC: We'll be ready
City officials say they expect nothing so apocalyptic. Having witnessed the fate of New Orleans, they are rewriting the city’s already comprehensive hurricane plan and expect to have it ready by Aug. 1, the first day of hurricane season in the Northeast.

“New York is a town unique in its ability to respond to these kinds of events,” said Kelly McKinney, deputy commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management. “Because it is so densely populated it’s got the infrastructure to respond.”

Sure, the low-lying southern end of Manhattan could be submerged as far north as Canal Street. The Holland Tunnel and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel could fill with water. Outside Manhattan, huge swaths of Brooklyn and Queens, including the sites of the city’s two airports, could flood in a major hurricane.

But New York won’t have to be pumped dry, the way New Orleans was after Hurricane Katrina. New York is above sea level — the water will come, and it will drain away.

“We’re not evacuating New York City in any way,” said Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the city’s department of emergency management.

In a worst-case scenario, emergency managers expect 2 million of New York City’s 8 million residents will have to leave their homes. City officials plan to suggest that people in low-lying areas leave their homes 96 hours ahead of a potentially dangerous hurricane.

But because New Yorkers have a tendency to look out for No. 1, emergency planners expect a million people who don’t really need to go anywhere will make for the bridges and tunnels just because they can.

“It could get very ugly,” said Frank Lepore, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

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