The National Hurricane Center warns that Hurricane Earl may swing by dangerously close to the U.S. East Coast before curving back out to sea. While the odds are it won’t strike New York City directly, such an event is not unprecedented, and the city has plans in place to evacuate – and to hunker down – if need be.
Problem is, there would be precious little time to prepare. And while the forecast suggests it is very unlikely Hurricane Earl will strike Manhattan with more than a glancing blow, a direct hit by a hurricane is ultimately inevitable, scientists say.
Because hurricanes move more quickly and become very difficult to predict once they head north of the Carolinas, experts say there might be just hours to issue evacuation warnings before a storm hits.
Compounding this, the Big Apple has one of highest population densities in the nation – more than 8 million people live in New York City. Based on studies by the Army Corps of Engineers, officials have determined that vulnerable, low-lying areas in and around New York City and metropolitan New Jersey would need to start heading out sooner than what is typically ordered in Florida and other hurricane-prone states.
Frankly put: There would not be enough time to get everyone out. Disaster plans for New York City focus therefore on getting people out of low-lying areas that might be inundated by storm surges, and having others stay put or move to safe locations within the city.
History as a lesson
Since records have been kept in the 1700s, dozens of hurricanes have affected the greater New York City area. A handful were major events. Scientists have geologic evidence that other major hurricanes have hit the region in prehistory.
One event, in 1821, offers a telling lesson. On Sept. 3 that year, a major hurricane slammed without warning into Manhattan. “Everything was flooded south of Canal Street,” according to historical accounts. The East River and the Hudson River converged over lower Manhattan, but that part of the island had not yet been built up. The storm hit at low tide. Had the tide been high, the flooding would have been far worse, researchers say.
Late in the summer of 1938, a storm that started off the coast of Africa arrived unexpectedly along the coast of New Jersey, where 140 mph (225 kph) winds tore up boardwalks. The storm raced north at more than 50 mph (80 kph) and uprooted trees and destroyed houses on Long Island. Since no warnings were issued, people fled only when they saw the storm approaching, and by the time the storm tore through much of the northeast, an estimated 682 to 800 people were killed, according to “Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938” (Back Bay, 2004).
More recently, Hurricane Carol made landfall as a Category 3 storm on Long Island and Connecticut in 1954. In 1960, Hurricane Donna created an 11-foot (3.4 meters) storm surge in New York Harbor, causing extensive pier damage, according to the New York City Office of Emergency Management. Hurricane Gloria in 1985 would have been “catastrophic” if it had hit at high tide and been just slightly closer to the city. There have been several other near-misses in the past six decades.