Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned Monday that a city on continuous alert for terror attacks also must brace itself for a natural disaster — a hurricane powerful enough to cause serious flooding in lower Manhattan and elsewhere.
"It's always a little odd being in New York and talking about hurricanes," Chertoff said after touring a new command center at the Office of Emergency Management in Brooklyn.
Still, he added, a hurricane "would be an extraordinarily devastating blow to the city."
Weather experts have said the nation's largest city is about due for a major hurricane with 130 mph winds and a 30-foot storm surge that could cause the Hudson and East Rivers to overflow.
The storm threatens to inflict more than $100 billion in economic losses while forcing the evacuation of 3 million people — more than six times the population of pre-Katrina New Orleans.
Historically, the city endures a hurricane roughly once every 90 years. The last major New York-area hurricane was the Long Island Express of 1938, which caused 700 deaths along the Eastern seaboard.
Last year, the city unveiled a new hurricane plan to evacuate 3 million people while providing shelter for more than 600,000 others. OEM officials estimated the preparedness costs at up to $30 million.
Chertoff said New York's planning was "second to none."
"Planning is as important here as in Louisiana or North Carolina," he said.
Officials have urged people to become familiar with the nearest evacuation routes and shelters. New Yorkers should resist the urge to "ride it out," Chertoff said. "When you're told to evacuate, you must do that."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to station himself at the OEM office for two weeks in July to better familiarize himself with the facility in case of an emergency, Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler said.
"We obviously can't control the weather," Skyler said, "but we can control our response."