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Possible Impacts of Hurricane Sandy on the NYC Area

Waves hit Seawall - flickr/ocmdhotels

I lived in Florida on the Southwest coast in Naples from 1964 to 1970 and in Central Florida from 1973 until 2011 and had been through too many hurricanes to count in that time. The first being Hurricane Cleo.

I have to say I have been fascinated with these occurrences of nature since then. Tracking them by hand and listening to Dr. Neil Frank from the Hurricane Center in Miami as he explained what was going on and why. Even becoming pretty fair at predicting the possible tracks of more than a few of them.

I saw the effects of these storms up close. We moved to Naples after Hurricane Donna had gone up the coast. Saw the remnants of the original Naples Pier – nothing but pilings poking up out of the gulf. And the slabs of houses that got washed away. Had a friend who worked at the local radio station which was some miles inland and he told me of having to put the transmitter and other equipment up on blocks to keep the water out and the station on the air.

Saw old houses and buildings that had collapsed, trees torn up and the quintessential board through the palm tree. Even in central Florida I was through a number of Hurricanes and other tropical systems and saw the kind of damage they can do under the right circumstances.

But this is New York City we are talking about and it has it own set of problems to deal with concerning the approach of a Hurricane.

The biggest threat will be from the storm surge. Though Sandy is only a Category 1 storm with maximum winds of 75 mph now – and some intensification still possible – it has a large wind field and is a large – in area – storm. Reports from buoys and ships and recon aircraft already show that it has a large storm surge associated with it. If you look at this storm surge map you can see it will be very high and likely inundate the lower part of Manhattan. From Battery Park south and possibly even a bit north. The surge could be from 6-12 feet above sea level and with a high tide at around the same time as Sandy hits the coast just south of NYC, could mean extensive flooding as Dr. Masters points out.

This afternoon’s 3:30 pm EDT H*Wind analysis from NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division put the destructive potential of Sandy’s winds at a modest 2.8 on a scale of 0 to 6. However, the destructive potential of the storm surge was record high: 5.8 on a scale of 0 to 6. This is a higher destructive potential than any hurricane observed since 1969, including Category 5 storms like Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Camille, and Andrew. The previous highest destructive potential for storm surge was 5.6 on a scale of 0 to 6, set during Hurricane Isabel of 2003. Sandy is now forecast to bring a near-record storm surge of 6 – 11 feet to Northern New Jersey and Long Island Sound, including the New York City Harbor. This storm surge has the potential to cause many billions of dollars in damage if it hits near high tide at 9 pm EDT on Monday.

Dr. Masters put the chances of the NYC subway system flooding at 50/50. Personally I think 60/40 is closer to the mark. The system is multi leveled with a number of old and abandoned tunnels that have just been left there. Plenty of area for high water to intrude. Also a storm surge is not just rising water but also the waves that accompany it driven by the wind and they themselves can reach 5 to 8 feet or more. Long Island sound and the entry to the Hudson river can act like a funnel forcing the water up as well. The rising water with the palisades on one side would have no where else to go.

But the transport aspect is not in my opinion the biggest problem. New York City’s utilities also run underground in tunnels. Sometimes along side the subway tunnels, or under streets or buildings with access for the workers at street level. These too would flood under the same conditions. The water and electric and communications cables and connections are underground as well. Telephone punch downs and fiber terminations would all be exposed to salt water which would begin to corrode them. All of these would have to be replaced before they could be judged usable again. Though the cables themselves are usually packed with grease, the terminations themselves are exposed. And it would not take long for the salt water to corrode them. Even after the water is drained, the remaining salt and moisture – combined with air exposure – would damage these connection. The distribution transformers and high voltage connections and even cable would need to be replaced.

So Dr. Masters and others estimates of damage into the billions of dollars is likely on the mark. Not to mention the lengthy disruption this would cause. Possibly months.

But this has all been covered many times by experts who have said repeatedly that NYC is ill prepared for such a situation. In the past hurricanes and tropical storms making their way up the coast like Sandy and Irene before were rare occurrence. Now with the climate changing, they could become increasingly common. With the ocean temps rising and remaining very warm late into the season, having at least one major storm impacting the area every year would not be unheard of.

Ignoring the consequences of our actions or denying them – produces other consequences.

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