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Expert: NYC, San Diego overdue for hurricanes

The Weather Channel's Dr. Rick Knabb examines the top five cities that appear most overdue for a hurricane.
The 1938 New England Hurricane was the last to impact New York City, where 10 people lost their lives. This image is from Pawtuxet Village in Rhode Island.
The 1938 New England Hurricane was the last to impact New York City, where 10 people lost their lives. This image is from Pawtuxet Village in Rhode Island.National Weather Service
/ Source: The Weather Channel

I had an ulterior motive in assembling this new list of cities. I was hoping they’d send me to each one to do thorough “research” on their hurricane history, because they are among the most desirable places to visit or reside in the United States.

Now to the real reason for this list. During my trek along the U.S. East Coast on the NOAA Hurricane Awareness Tour in May, I talked to many longtime residents who all said essentially the following: “I’ve lived here for decades, and we’ve not had a really bad hurricane, so I don’t think I have anything to worry about”. Then there were a few others who had experienced a direct hurricane hit, and generally their refrain was: “Until then, I never thought it could be that bad.”

All of that got me to thinking about the cities that have gone the longest without a direct hit from the core of a “significant” hurricane. That resulted in this list of selected cities, in order of how many years it has been. For some of the cities, their last “significant” direct hit was from a major hurricane, while for others that have no known direct hits from a major hurricane, their last direct hit from any hurricane is the determining factor.

These and dozens of other U.S. cities, including those hit very recently, all are vulnerable and could be hit this year or any year, and everyone needs to be hurricane-prepared. Many residents of the cities on this list, however, might be among the starkest examples of people who truly believe their hometown is immune from hurricanes. As a result, they might not have chosen to make sure they have enough insurance to replace their home if damaged or destroyed by a hurricane.

They also might not have any idea if they’re in an evacuation zone, or might not know where to go if told to evacuate. And they might not have the critical supplies they need to survive the aftermath of a direct hurricane strike. It is my hope that by reminding everyone in all hurricane-vulnerable locations, including these cities that have been fortunate for a long time, that a hurricane could directly strike them. Yes, it could be that bad. And as you’ll see, emergency managers responsible for these areas take the threat seriously.

Tampa Bay: Fifth-Most Overdue
Ninety years ago, the Tampa Bay metro area had a population of less than 150,000. Today approximately three million people live in the area, roughly 20 times more than in 1921. That is an historic year for Tampa, when on Oct. 25 a hurricane made landfall near Tarpon Springs, Fla., with an estimated Category 2 strength, producing storm surge of up to about 10 feet in Tampa Bay and causing extensive damage. What if a hurricane on a similar track struck now, and what if it was even stronger?

Storm surge in some areas of Hillsborough County, home to the city of Tampa, could be as high as 15 to 20 feet or more above the ground in a major hurricane, and the ocean could penetrate up to three miles inland, especially near rivers or canals. Even though it’s been a very long time since the last direct hit from a major hurricane, local emergency managers urge residents to write out a hurricane evacuation plan now.

Tampa was extremely fortunate during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons to not receive a direct hit on its coastline, when hurricanes such as Charley, Ivan and Wilma struck other portions of the Gulf Coast of Florida. These storms were wake-up calls for Tampa that it is not immune.

Savannah: Fourth-Most Overdue
The entirety of Chatham County, along the northernmost part of Georgia’s coastline and home to Savannah, was evacuated in advance of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Why? Like other hurricane-prone coastal areas, hurricane evacuations there are due to the storm surge hazard. The shallow Atlantic waters off the southeastern United States make the Georgia coast extremely vulnerable to storm surge that could penetrate several miles inland in a major hurricane. One of the very few dry spots in a Category 4 or 5 would be at Savannah International Airport. The Georgia coast was very fortunate that Floyd missed it to the east.

Twenty years earlier in 1979, David came ashore not far south of Savannah as a Category 1 hurricane, but overall the impacts in the area were minimal. Sustained winds of tropical storm force occurred in Savannah, and storm surge of 3 to 5 feet occurred along the coast, but without major damages and nowhere near what a major hurricane could bring. Three other hurricanes came ashore near Savannah during the 20th century, in 1911, 1940 and 1947, but none were major hurricanes.

The National Weather Service has termed Georgia hurricanes a “sleeping giant.” One has to look all the way back to 1893 to find a major hurricane making a direct hit in the Savannah area. The “Sea Islands Hurricane” made landfall near Savannah in late August of that year, taking the lives of somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people in its storm surge. Several other hurricanes, including some major ones, struck the Georgia coast in the 1800s, making it clear that the area is very hurricane vulnerable, despite what has not occurred in the most recent decades.

Tybee Island, Ga., just off the coast from Savannah, hasn’t let the lack of recent major hurricanes deter it from making sure its residents and visitors are hurricane-aware. Storm surge poles that depict the potential flooding there from hurricanes of various categories have been placed in front of City Hall and at the entrances to fishing piers at the immediate Atlantic coastline.

New York City: Third-Most Overdue
New York City is a hurricane-vulnerable, coastal metropolis. You don’t believe me? Yes, it’s a rare occurrence, but hurricanes have struck there before. Following an 1821 direct hit, the next and most recent such occurrence was in August 1893, when the center of a Category 1 hurricane came onshore between Coney Island and where JFK Airport stands today, causing severe damage across the eastern part of the metro area.

Decades have passed and, to current residents, New York City seems to have essentially no history of hurricanes at all. They’ve watched some close calls go by to the east, most recently Bob in 1991, perhaps adding to the perception of a hurricane shield for the Big Apple. The eye of the 1938 New England Hurricane also missed the city to the east, sparing New York City from a major disaster but still causing 10 fatalities and millions of dollars in damages.

The 1821 event caused some storm surge flooding in portions of lower Manhattan, but those neighborhoods are far more built up and populated today. And a major hurricane on a track farther west than in 1938 could push more than 30 feet of storm surge into New York City. Knowing all of this history, the New York City Office of Emergency Management has planned for the next hurricane.

The portions of the city that are susceptible to storm surge flooding are divided into three zones that may be ordered to evacuate, depending on the anticipated strength of the storm. Hurricane-force winds would be even stronger on higher floors and would blow out many windows, as seen in recent years in Houston, New Orleans and Miami. So, residents of high-rise buildings that are not in an evacuation zone would be told to shelter in place no higher than on the tenth floor.

Given the already-complacent population in New York City, there is one other aspect of northeastern U.S. hurricanes that make them so dangerous. They are usually moving quickly, and a day or two prior to striking they often lurk more than a thousand miles away. That infamous 1938 “Long Island Express,” for example, which made landfall on the afternoon of Sept. 21, was just east of the Bahamas the morning of the 20th. Appearances can be very deceiving.

San Diego: Second-Most Overdue
Only one hurricane is known to have ever directly struck the coast of California with hurricane-force winds. I cannot show you a satellite image, because it happened long before satellites were invented. I cannot show you any video of the hurricane’s damage in California, because it happened before movie cameras were invented. In fact, it’s been such a long time that it took some extensive work by researchers within the past decade to dig up sufficient, relevant documentation of the event, such as old newspaper accounts and surface observations, to paint a clear picture of what happened.

That one California hurricane struck San Diego on Oct. 2, 1858, producing sustained hurricane-force winds there and resulting in extensive property damages. Winds of tropical storm force extended up the coast to near Los Angeles. Another hurricane hasn’t hit California since. Why is such an event so rare?

The primary reason is the very cool ocean temperatures over the eastern Pacific off the coast of North America, extending northward from the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico. Even though the tropical eastern Pacific to the south and southwest of southern Mexico is routinely a concentrated area of hurricane activity, a rare set of circumstances must be in place for a hurricane to make it all the way up to San Diego. As in 1858, the hurricane must be moving fast enough, over waters just warm enough, to maintain its intensity on the way north to California.

Since a scenario similar to the 1858 hurricane could certainly happen again, the National Weather Service has established procedures to issue hurricane and tropical storm watches and warnings along the Southern California coast.

Honolulu: Most Overdue
Catastrophic hurricane plans were signed in 2009 by FEMA and the Hawaii State Civil Defense. The operations plan is based on the scenario of a Category 4 hurricane making a direct hit on the southern shores of the island of Oahu — location of dense population centers, the tourist hub of Waikiki, downtown Honolulu, the international airport, Pearl Harbor, and the Port of Honolulu through which most of the state’s goods and supplies arrive.

Phases of the plan kick into gear when the chances of hurricane-force winds somewhere in the state reach certain thresholds. I worked with the State of Hawaii and FEMA to identify those thresholds while I was the Deputy Director at the Central Pacific Hurricane Center from 2008 to 2010. As each phase is triggered when a real hurricane approaches, more resources are applied to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a hurricane in a remote location where the logistics of doing so are very daunting.

Why, you may ask, are officials in Hawaii going to such great lengths to plan for a major hurricane strike in Honolulu? That’s never happened before, has it? No, not in the available records, despite a long list of close calls. Are these emergency managers wasting their time?

The reason that their time is well spent is that there is no meteorological reason why the core of a major hurricane cannot directly strike Honolulu. Iniki in 1992 made a direct hit on Kauai, only about 100 miles west of Honolulu, at major hurricane strength. Ten years earlier, Hurricane Iwa struck Kauai in late November. A number of other major hurricanes have passed just south of Honolulu during the past several decades.

The prospect of a major hurricane striking Honolulu is scary, especially if the center of the eye passes just west of the city and places the strongest, onshore winds where the most people and infrastructures are located. The winds alone would be bad enough, with most homes not built to withstand hurricane-force winds, many of them perilously perched on mountain slopes, and numerous high-rises that would lose windows especially on upper floors. Add to that the flooding because of waves and storm surge that would occur near the coast as the ocean moves inland, plus rainfall-induced flooding that could send water rushing down the mountains from the opposite direction.