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Queens Chronicle

Flirting With Disaster; City Enters Storm Season

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Posted: Thursday, August 28, 2008 12:00 am

Those who disregard the threat of a hurricane in Queens have not looked into the city’s recent history.

Once again, the northern states are moving into the most likely time of year to be ravaged by a hurricane and, according to some, there is a greater chance this year of the city being struck than others.

While the Atlantic hurricane season started in June, ocean temperatures are now reaching optimum conditions for a storm to strike the northern states and won’t recede until the end of September. A major hurricane, classified as a Category 3 storm with winds up to 130 miles an hour, hits the city about once every 90 years.

It has been 70 years since the last major hurricane brushed the borough and that storm, nicknamed the Long Island Express, had a devastating effect on the area. The eye of the storm passed 75 miles east of the city at a time when Long Island was sparsely populated. Today, with a densely packed coastline, the aftermath could be catastrophic.

This is the storm that inspired Dr. Nicholas Coch, a geologist and professor at Queens College, to devote his professional life to tracking and studying hurricanes. “It was the only American hurricane to do regional damage. It covered five states,” Coch said.

While he was too young to remember the storm firsthand, he had the chance to witness what it left behind. Since then, he has studied hurricanes on the ground, in the air and in their aftermath, including the nation’s deadliest.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck in August of 2005, was the costliest storm to ever hit the United States. It killed more than 1,800 people and caused more than $81 billion in damage. “When I looked at Katrina’s damage in the field, I was very impressed with the surge … how it just obliterated the coast,” Coch said.

Katrina gave hurricane experts like Coch a good indication of what could happen should a Category 3 storm hit the city. Katrina weakened to a Category 3 from a Category 5 before hitting Louisiana and Mississippi.

New York’s shoreline, like Louisiana’s, sits at a right angle to the coast. As a result, the shoreline funnels and increases the speed and intensity of a storm surge, the deadliest aspect of a hurricane.

A worst case scenario for the city would be if a Category 3, with winds between 111 and 130 mph, hits between New York and New Jersey at high tide. The Rockaways, Jamaica Bay and Broad Channel would all be under water in a matter of hours, followed shortly by Howard Beach, Hamilton Beach and Kennedy International Airport, according to recent estimates by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The water could eventually spread as far north as South Ozone Park, Jamaica and Springfield Gardens, and the tidal surge could cause the East River to spill into Long Island City and Astoria and shut down LaGuardia Airport.

In such an event, the mayor would need to issue an evacuation order, which could send as many as 3 million people fleeing from the highest impact zones.

To address this what if … scenario, the Office of Emergency Management recently held a contest to design provisional housing for residents who may lose their homes as the result of such a storm.

Typically, provisional housing programs rely on the deployment of single-household manufactured homes or trailers. While a city block may have as many as 200 households per acre, an acre of trailers could accommodate no more than 10 households. The OEM wants to develop temporary housing for residents whose property has been destroyed by the storm that can accomodate more residents.

The designs of the winners, which show a range of stackable residential units, are being reviewed by the city Department of Design and Construction for possible development.

One of the most dangerous aspects of hurricanes is how unpredictable they can be. “Little things can change their course and their intensity,” said Coch, which is one of the things he finds so fascinating about them.

Coch isn’t a forecaster and won’t hazard a guess at where or when the next major hurricane will hit. “If I could, I would have my own psychic friends network,” he quipped. Still, some experts are expecting a busier season than usual. While the OEM considers the chances of a major hurricane striking the city to be on average less than one percent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an 85 percent possibility that this hurricane season will be above average, with between 14 and 18 named storms, as many as 10 of those becoming hurricanes.

The Tropical Meteorology Project, based at Colorado State University, estimates a 67 percent chance of a hurricane striking the nation’s coast from now until the end of the season, ending Nov. 30. The latest storm to form is Hurricane Gustav, currently a Category 1 that could develop into a Category 4 as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac, predicting blizzards, hurricanes and droughts since 1792, expects a hurricane to strike the East Coast in the last week of September. The almanac claims to be accurate about 80 percent of the time.

New York City’s Hurricane History

1893 — A Category 1 storm destroyed Hog Island, a resort island off the Rockaways. In 1995 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found debris from the island.

1938 — The most powerful hurricane known to have made landfall near the city. The eye of the Category 3 storm crossed over Long Island and into New England, killing nearly 200 people and 10 in New York City. Damage would have been far worse if the hurricane came closer to the five boroughs.

1954 — Hurricane Carol hit eastern Long Island and southeast Connecticut. While the city was spared a direct hit, it received heavy flooding.

1960 — Hurricane Donna created an 11 foot storm surge in New York Harbor that caused extensive pier damage.

1985 — Hurricane Gloria left 2.2 million people without power in the northeastern U.S. The USACE has said Gloria could have been catastrophic if it had arrived at high tide and been just a little closer to the city.

1991 — Hurricane Bob causes eight fatalities and $2 billion in damages after making landfall near New Bedford, Mass.

1999 — Hurricane Floyd flooded subway tunnels across the city, caused schools to close and the city to open emergency storm shelters as a precautionary measure.

Source: City Office of Emergency Management

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