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

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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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