Batten down the hatches, N.Y.

Scientists predict major hurricane will hit Big Apple, causing at least $110 billion in property damage

July 21, 2006|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN REPORTER

NEW YORK -- Scientists say there's a hurricane threatening the nation's largest city.

It will fill New York's subways with water, ruin its underground power and communications lines, blow out the windows of its skyscrapers and turn storm debris into deadly missiles.

The storm doesn't have a name yet. But meteorologists can see it coming. And it's turning up on the radar screens of insurance companies and state and local emergency planners.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Health & Science section about planning for a major Northeast hurricane incorrectly described Lloyd's America's preparations. The reinsurance firm is prepared to handle its share of a $65 billion industry loss, not the full amount. Also, Lloyd's reference to $7 trillion in insured property value referred to all U.S. coastal regions, not just the Northeast.
The Sun regrets the errors.

More than 300 of them crowded the first Northeast Hurricane Conference here this week. They learned that this made-for-TV disaster movie scenario is no Hollywood fantasy.

"It will happen here," said Nicholas K. Coch, a geologist at Queens College, City of New York University. "It's not a question of if. It can, and it will."

That's because it happened before, in 1938, when the Category 3 hurricane called the "Long Island Express" crashed ashore and tore northward into six more states. It killed 700 people, drove 53,000 from their homes and toppled 2 billion trees from Long Island to Maine. Virtually every property on the island was damaged.

Since then, the region's population has doubled. The number of single-family homes has tripled and the appraised value of the property has increased 13-fold.

If a strong Category 3 hurricane, with top winds of 111 to130 mph, struck Long Island today, it would produce insured losses of $110 billion - three times the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast last August, according to disaster model reported by the Insurance Information Institute. Economic losses would be nearly twice that amount.

"It's going to be a national economic event," said Howard Mills, superintendent of the New York State Insurance Department.

With the right storm track, a 20-foot storm surge would funnel into New York Harbor and push high water deep into low-lying business and residential sections of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. John F. Kennedy International Airport would go under the waves.

Karen Clark of AIR Worldwide Corp., which does disaster modeling for insurance companies, said property values in the storm surge "footprint" in New York total more than $300 billion.

Hurricane-force winds will accelerate as they are squeezed between skyscrapers, producing damage much worse than the storm's central wind speeds might suggest, Coch said, producing "a complicated and extremely long recovery period."

Getting people out

City emergency planners are already working on evacuation plans for neighborhoods vulnerable to storm surge flooding. Residents would be urged to move in with friends or family living on higher ground or, as a last resort, make a dash for designated shelters.

In a city where almost any break from routine turns normal traffic to gridlock, evacuations aren't likely to go smoothly, Coch warned. Worse yet, evacuations across the region's bridges would be banned when winds on the spans reach gale force - 39 mph.

And there may be relatively little warning. Hurricanes moving north along the Carolina coast typically accelerate as they approach the southern shores of Long Island and New England. "When that hurricane is in Cape Hatteras, it's going to be here [in New York City] in six hours," Coch said.

That rapid forward movement also increases wind speeds on the right side of the storm track. For example, the last hurricane to make landfall on Long Island was Gloria, in 1985. It was a Category 1 storm, with maximum sustained winds of just 85 mph. But Gloria's 40-mph forward speed pushed winds east of the storm's center to 111 mph.

Gloria felled trees and blew roofs off buildings across Long Island. A seven-foot storm surge raked coastal communities, and a truck was blown off the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, just north of the city.

Since 1900, the northeastern states from Maryland to Maine have seen six "major" hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) make landfall, according to Philip J. Klotzbach, a research associate of Colorado State University hurricane prognosticator William Gray.

In an average year, Klotzbach said, the Northeast runs a 5 percent chance that such a storm will recur. But increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin since 1995 has more than doubled that probability - to 11 percent.

This year, Klotzbach said, the risk is "quite high." He and Gray have projected a 69 percent chance that a major storm will make landfall somewhere along the East Coast, including Florida. That's more than twice the risk in an average year.

Maryland is lucky

Thanks to stronger westerly winds and a relatively short coastline, Maryland is relatively safe from a direct hit. Since at least the 1850s, no storm of Category 3 or more has ever made landfall in Maryland, according to the National Hurricane Center.

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