Still in the Dark: Why Hurricane Sandy Wasn’t a Surprise

Written by Paul Bisceglio on . Posted in News Our Town, News Our Town Downtown, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, West Side Spirit.


Hurricane debris near the damaged ConEd power plant on 14th Street and Avenue C. Photo by Laura Mishkin.

This week power returned downtown, kids went back to school and the crane dangling 74 stories above West 57th Street was secured. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, however, New York City is far from fixed.

More than 70,000 residents remained without power on Monday. The inundated Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown tunnels remained closed. Ruined homes and businesses along the city’s shores left thousands of New Yorkers in emergency shelters. The city faces billions of dollars in damages and billions more in lost economic activity.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg summed up the city’s recovery on Oct. 30, the day after the storm: “This is going to take a while.”

Looking down the long road ahead, though, New Yorkers are also looking back, and asking big questions about the city’s readiness for a storm of Sandy’s magnitude. Did we see it coming? What more could we have done to prepare?

The threat of a massively debilitating hurricane in the city, it turns out, is nothing new to local weather experts. In fact, many have anticipated—with near-faultless accuracy in regard to damages—a Sandy-sized storm in the city for years.

In 2005, Aaron Naparstek, a writer for New York Press (this paper’s predecessor, now online at nypress.com), interviewed emergency preparedness and response coordinators and weather scientists to find out just how likely it was that the city would soon be struck by a large-scale hurricane. The resulting article was prescient.

“A storm of that magnitude may repeat every 70 to 80 years or so,” said Mike Lee, then-director of Watch Command at New York City’s Office of Emergency Management. He spoke with Naparstek about the infamous 1938 “Long Island Express,” a near-Category 4 hurricane that hammered West Hampton and decimated parts of the East Coast. “Do the math,” he said. “Whether it happens this year, next year or in five years, it’s going to happen.”

Naparstek’s article lays out the evidence for Lee’s claim: The city’s location at the apex of Long Island and New Jersey’s right angle is ideal for collecting water; its shallow continental shelf acts as a funnel for storm surges(New York City, Naparstek mentions, has some of the highest storm-surge values in the country); wind shear and sea-surface pressure are low; and climate change is only making things more tempestuous.

“In the event of a direct hit by a Category 3 hurricane,” Naparstek writes, “surge maps show that the Holland and Battery tunnels will be completely filled with seawater, with many subway and railroad tunnels severely flooded as well. The runways of LaGuardia and JFK airports will get flooded by 18.1 and 31.2 feet of water, respectively.”

The article is all too convincing in light of the devastation Sandy wreaked, but there never was an opposing argument. Naparstek said he began interviewing weather experts for the article when he received a standard-issue Hurricane Emergency Evacuation Map at his western Park Slope apartment and saw, to his disbelief, that parts of his own home would be underwater in the event of major storm.

“A lot of people say, ‘How can you come up with these numbers? Thirty feet, that’s ridiculous. It’s science fiction.’ ” Lee told Naparstek. “Actually, it’s science fact.”

The question that motivated Naparstek is still relevant today. “How can it be that nobody’s talking about this?”

“I think people are aware of the threat of flooding,” says Professor Nicholas K. Coch, a coastal geology expert at Queens College who once bore the nickname “Dr. Doom” for being the first scientist to widely publicize the city’s hurricane history and vulnerabilities. “But there are political negatives about forcing people to do things.” He said that people are reluctant to spend money on infrastructural defenses against disasters that are unlikely or infrequent. The installation of storm-surge barriers along the city’s coastline, for instance, could cost $10 billion.

When major storms do hit, though, Coch emphasized, huge amounts of money are lost in reparations, as made clear in Sandy’s aftermath.

“There’s a lot of blindness,” Coch lamented. “There are too many people refusing to face the reality of the situation.”

Ross Dickman, the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s New York office in Upton, agreed that New Yorkers, like all East Coasters, have a dangerously complacent mindset when it comes to the risk of natural disasters.

“People have a mentality that they’ve lived through this before,” he said. “There is this ‘home’ mentality that needs to be overcome.”

Dickman noted that his team predicted Sandy’s severity well in advance, and gave presentations to emergency managers that detailed the storm’s anticipated behavior and effects. “From an outreach perspective, we did everything that we possibly could,” he said.

Professor Coch and Naparstek both acknowledged that the city’s immediate emergency response certainly went better than it could have, applauding evacuation notices and subway closures. It was the city’s big-picture infrastructural and planning decisions, though, that both questioned.

“Our defenses against flooding are abysmal,” Coch pointed out.

Local politicians also have identified numerous flaws in the city’s preparedness for severe storms, and have begun suggesting changes that need to be made.

“The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a recent radio interview. “We are only a few feet above sea level. As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills.”

Congressman Jerry Nadler has been outspoken about the city’s need to invest in more comprehensive protection from extreme weather conditions. He supports “looking into barriers, levees and other infrastructure and making the necessary federal investments to ensure that cities and communities are protected,” a rep from Nadler’s office told Our Town. “And we should do such a review keeping in mind the effects of climate change, rising sea levels and the growing frequency of intense storms, as well as other areas of the country that are vulnerable.”

Coch and Dickman asserted that money spent on storm preparation would not be wasted.

“With expected climate change over time, we definitely need to prepare for events like these,” Dickman said.

Coch was more direct. When asked if New Yorkers should expect more frequent storms of Sandy’s intensity, he turned the question around. “The sea levels are rising, and parts of the city are sinking. What do you think?”

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