Hurricane Could Devastate New York, U.S. Economy, Experts Warn

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
May 19, 2006
Forecasters are warning that a hurricane making landfall at or near
New York City could cause catastrophic damage in the U.S.'s largest
urban center.

While a storm is unlikely to make direct landfall on Manhattan, a nearby storm would cause extensive flooding and heavy storm surges, experts say.

Even a minimal hurricane could put the runways at John F. Kennedy Airport underwater, and the battering action of wind-driven waves could cause significant damage to buildings, says Stephen Baig, a storm surge specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

A minor hurricane could also cause flooding throughout Lower Manhattan, depending on how the storm approached and whether it arrived at high or low tide.

Making matters worse, many New York residents may not realize how severely they could be affected by a hurricane.

Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, says Long Island's 4 million residents could be surprised by the aftermath of a storm.

"What I think they don't understand is how many days and weeks after a hurricane that their lives will be completely changed," Mandia said.

"People who live away from the water think a hurricane will mean one day away from work, then back to normal."

"There will be an economic shutdown for a few weeks, if not a month," he said. "The economic standstill will be the biggest surprise for people."

Gregory Caronia, director of emergency preparedness for Nassau County on Long Island, said he tells Nassau County residents to be prepared to survive for at least four or five days on their own after a hurricane.

"We have so many people here and limited resources," Caronia said.

"Response within hours is not feasible. Within eight hours after a hurricane, we might be able to get some sort of reconnaissance [of the damage]. Beyond that, it might be a day or two or three before we can get help to them."

Widespread Hurricane Damage

Forecasters also warn that a hurricane striking New York City could cause major problems well beyond the city itself.

"We've come to realize since Hurricane Katrina that a major hurricane near an urban center can have national and international repercussions," said Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of environmental sciences at Queens College in New York City.

New Orleans, one of the nation's most important ports, was devastated last August by Hurricane Katrina. The destruction contributed to a sharp increase in oil prices, and the city is still struggling to recover.

(Read "Hurricane Katrina: Complete Coverage.")

New York, a worldwide financial center, has an even larger presence in national and international commerce.

Should a hurricane close the port of New York and the New York Stock Exchange for a week or more, the damage to the nation's economy would be more severe than that caused by Katrina, Coch said.

And although New York isn't typically associated with hurricanes, the city has taken hits in the past and is vulnerable to storm surge.

A 1990 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the three U.S. cities most vulnerable to hurricanes are New Orleans, Miami, and New York.

New York's Hurricane History

The last time a hurricane made landfall in New York was 1985, when Hurricane Gloria's eye scraped the New Jersey coast before coming ashore on Long Island, just east of Manhattan. (See map of New York.)

But by the time the storm arrived, its strongest winds had diminished to 100 miles an hour (161 kilometers an hour) or less.

Caronia, the emergency management director, is worried that the people who went through Hurricane Gloria think they've seen the worst that a storm can do.

"My honest opinion, Gloria was a minimal hurricane," Caronia said.

"People gauge their experience with hurricanes by what they're exposed to. That's what I'm afraid of here."

The worst hurricane on record to strike New York smashed into Long Island in September 1938 with sustained winds exceeding 120 miles an hour (193 kilometers an hour).

That storm killed 600 people and caused substantial damage from New Jersey to New England.

But the eye of that storm missed Manhattan, minimizing the damage to the city's nerve center.

Hurricanes' Dangerous Route

Most hurricanes that reach New York travel parallel to the U.S.'s Atlantic coastline, making a direct hit on Manhattan less likely.

The coastline turns sharply eastward just north of the city, however, making a direct hit on Long Island much more likely.

"New York City is tucked in, away from the coast," said meteorologist Joe Bastardi of AccuWeather.

"A devastating major hurricane in New York City would have to be worse somewhere else, worse on Long Island or New Jersey."

But storms less powerful than the 1938 hurricane have done major damage to the city.

In 1821, the eye of a hurricane pushed a 13-foot (4-meter) storm surge into New York Harbor that put Lower Manhattan underwater.

The flooding would have been much worse had the eye not arrived at low tide.

North Carolina writer Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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