Hurricane Sandy: The Worst-Case Scenario For New York City Is Unimaginable

by Mike Tidwell

What might Hurricane Sandy do to New York City? See excerpts below from my 2006 book The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities. It’s a depressing title meant to help shock us into preventing these worst-case scenarios from coming true via global climate change. But it might now be too late for parts of imperiled New York.

As you read, keep in mind that as of Sunday night October 28th, the National Hurricane Center was forecasting that the storm could hit anywhere between Delaware and Rhode Island, with a surge tide as high as 11 feet in some places. Even if New York City avoids a direct strike, it is still facing a potentially “worst-case scenario” in terms of surge tides.

Adapted from chapters five and six of the book: The Raving Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities (2006, Simon and Schuster/Free Press) by Mike Tidwell.

The Worst-case Scenario for New York City:

In September 1985, Hurricane Gloria steamed up the Atlantic coast and made landfall just above the mouth of New York harbor, passing north of Manhattan. As a Category 2 storm the surge tide could have been very serious indeed. But it was a relative dud, this storm, causing only minor flooding and spotty structural damage in beach communities across eastern and central Long Island. The reason? The New York area got lucky. The storm struck at low tide. It came when the ocean had conveniently lowered itself a full five feet in relation to the land, down from the high tide mark of just six hours earlier. This created perfect conditions for a “soft landing.” Had she arrived at the peak of high tide, then Gloria would have poured water across much of Long Island, inundating several subway stations, contaminating underground electrical and phone cables, and filling every basement and cellar from Canal Street south. Luck helped save America’s largest urban region from its most serious hurricane threat in a generation.

But New York City remains the great sleeping giant of hurricane disaster scenarios. So many mutually reinforcing factors point to catastrophe in America’s largest city that, in many ways, it’s even more frightening than New Orleans. “The Bobbing Apple” might be the name we use once the perfect storm arrives here.

Few hurricanes strike land this far north, of course, most drifting harmlessly out into the upper Atlantic, pushed there by strong westerly winds. But every 40-70 years, a major storm does slam into the New York City region. The great hurricane of 1821 passed right over Manhattan and basically cut the city in two, with the Hudson and East Rivers merging all the way up to Canal Street. At the Battery, shocked city dwellers watched as water rose as fast as 13 feet in one hour. Saving the city from total annihilation was the storm’s lucky arrival, like Gloria, at low tide.

Another major storm struck in 1892, then another in 1938 when the borderline Category 4 “Long Island Express” passed through the outskirts of greater New York, inflicting widespread death and destruction across New York state, New Jersey and much of New England. But that storm, 68 years ago, was the last major hurricane (Category 3 or above) to strike the New York Metropolitan region. It’s now a matter of when, not if, a big hurricane will strike again, according to meteorologists. And history says “when” is very soon.

The basic geography of New York City makes it a worst-case landing strip for any major hurricane. The city sits at the vertex of a giant right angle created by the land platform of Long Island and the northern shore of New Jersey. In the middle, looking like a huge catch basin, is New York Harbor, the gateway to the city. In the face of a major storm surge, the harbor acts as a funnel. The wall of seawater will plow into the harbor and then roar up the Hudson and East Rivers where it will become suddenly trapped. It’ll get backed into a corner with nowhere to go. Nowhere, that is, except up. In an eye blink, the runways of LaGuardia and JFK airports could be under 18 feet of water or more. Compounding matters is the fact that New York sits on an extremely shallow continental shelf which causes any surge to pile up on itself even before it reaches the city. These factors together give Gotham some of the highest storm-surge values in the United States.

It’s not just the city’s surface that will flood from a big hurricane surge tide, with almost all of lower Manhattan south of Broome Street under potentially tens of feet of water. It’s also the subsurface. Much of New York, like New Orleans, is below sea level. It’s actually underground, in fact, in the form of subway tracks, car tunnels, multi-story parking garages, basements, and utility tunnels. And in a big storm, it all floods. The city’s surge maps show that the Holland and Battery Tunnels will become totally filled with seawater in a big-hurricane surge.

An unsettling preview of things to come in New York arrived in December 1992 when a powerful nor’easter struck the city. It raised sea level at the southern tip of Manhattan by eight feet, flooded the Battery Park Tunnel with six feet of water, forced LaGuardia Airport to close, and shorted out the entire New York subway system, stranding passengers on trains and in stations (salt water conducts electricity, causing shorting, and it’s corrosive). The whole city was completely shut down, paralyzing the lives of 21 million people in the tri-state metro area – seven percent of the U.S. population. And this wasn’t even a hurricane.

What’s more, none of the hurricane forecasts described here takes into account the pre-hurricane “flood” that global warming will roll into the city. Amplified by local geological conditions, one U.S. government study predicts that up to two feet of ocean rise may occur by 2050 in New York and 3.5 feet by 2080. The next Big One could find the city already totally saturated with water around the edges, hanging on by a thread.

Finally, the same warming that raises sea level will also likely endow New York’s next Big One with much stronger winds. These winds will push still more surge water into the city. The wind itself could then blow through the city with impacts scarcely comprehensible. Many of the city’s two million trees, their roots wrapped tightly around all manner of buried telephone and electrical wires, will fall.

And that’s just at street level. A hurricane’s winds increase in force as you go up, in some cases nearly doubling in speed at 350 feet. This would deliver a super-enhanced body blow to every building in the city above 30 stories, which is to say pretty much the entire skyscraper forest of Manhattan. Who can even imagine the scene of flying glass and dislodged masonry filling the air and falling to the street everywhere from Midtown to the Financial District?

One wonders, however, if it’ll take a global warming-enhanced, long-overdue, direct-hit hurricane in New York City before the nation commits to real action on global warming.

But if that’s what it’ll take, we should prepare ourselves for what could be an economic wound and humanitarian crisis that outstrips all the images and impacts of September 11th and Katrina combined.

Mike Tidwell is Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. This piece was originally published at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network website and was reprinted with permission.

24 Responses to Hurricane Sandy: The Worst-Case Scenario For New York City Is Unimaginable

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    This is fascinating information, Mike Tidwell, thanks.

    Mainstream media is making sure that this storm is portrayed as having nothing to do with global warming, so this event won’t move public opinion to do anything about our little emissions problem. Maybe when cities start thinking about abandonment the conversation will get serious.

    Peter Ward, in The Flooded Earth, believes that triage and then abandonment are the realistic choices for cities such as New Orleans, Miami, San Francisco, and New York. Hard choices will be resisted much longer than practical, due to enormous sunk real estate and infrastructure capital. Fossil fuel companies will be joined by banks and engineering companies in new forms of denial, which will include massive (and doomed) fill and ocean barrier projects. By then their basic global warming denial will be too ridiculous, but they will repackage themselves as saviors. It’s about like fracking gas companies in cancer stricken Fort Worth putting up pink breast cancer banners on their rigs. This could all happen in most people’s lifetimes.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    NASA #SANDY Hurricane video from the International Space Station, Oct. 29, 2012

  3. Just watched something so bizarre and ‘1984’ like that…well…the MSNBC ‘chief meteorologist’ was giving his report to Andrea Mitchell while standing at Battery Park. After 5 minutes of his describing the unprecedented and catastrophic nature of the storm, Andrea asked him, ‘well, why might this unprecedented event be happening?’ I waited, poised at the end of my seat and…he rambled on for another 3 minutes that ‘he has never seen such a thing in his lifetime and may never again, etc.’ NO-nothing about climate change. Nothing. Nothing…nothing.

  4. BillD says:

    So what happens to all of the underground infrastructure in NYC when it is flooded? Would it take years to get the subway system going again and electricity restored. I assume that most electricity in NYC runs under the streets. Wouldn’t much of the electric system be destroyed by being submerged in salt water? What about gas heating? Is heating by underground natural gas lines? I guess that NYC could survive without underground parking garages, but no heat and electricity would be very serious. Is there an overall map for all of the undergroud infrastructure? If not, how will eletricians and engineers figure out how to repair and replace?

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Wikipedia has some bits on previous subway flooding. Amazingly, it took days, not years, to restore service.

  6. MSNBC is heavily underwritten by the car and fossil fuel companies. I would wager that’s why the C word rarely passes anyone’s lips, not even Rachel Maddow’s.

  7. Zimzone says:

    I would submit, David, that he wants to keep his title of ‘Chief Meteorologist’.
    Make no mistake…MSNBC doesn’t do squat w/o NBC approval, and according to our TV networks, climate change is a huge hoax.

  8. Stephanie L says:

    Do people write to these stations expressing disgust? Maybe one of the readers here can get a petition going… boycott stations that ignore climate change… just watched a video from Bloomberg, it was sad to see the anchors choking on their tongues to avoid mentioning the truth. Is there ONE newscaster with ANY integrity today? Just when we need men and women of courage most, we’ve got a nation of cowards.

  9. BillD says:

    Notice that Mike Tidwell’s book was published in 2006. However, in 2012, it seems that no one in the media and few politicians are even familiar with the idea that climate change raises the risk of extreme weather and coatal flooding. I do remember one exception, the govenor of Vermont, who thought that climate change was likely involved in the unpresidented floods that occured in his state.

  10. fj says:

    Banning cars from NYC would save and improve many lives, greatly reduce noise, dirt, and emissions and improve local transportation by eliminating the virtual monopoly of cars on 80 percent of our public space occupied by our streets.

    It would showcase to the world the extraordinary benefits of doing without cars including mitigating and adapting to climate change on a major scale.

    And Storms like Sandy should serve as a major incentive to do what is not only right but what makes extremely good sense when considering the future of this city.

  11. lori says:

    If any of the spent fuel pools are not able to be cooled at any of the nuclear power plants in the path of this storm, things will not be looking good for the future.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What it shows, almost comically, certainly farcically, is that the Rightwing MSM is a totalitarian system where even the barest mention of forbidden knowledge is absolute anathema. Hard Right Groupthink (which absolutely requires anthropogenic climate destabilisation denial)is a requirement for employment. The range of acceptable opinion approaches zero, having been deliberately straitened by owner-ideologues like Murdoch, for decades. The MSM is a propaganda system that more than anything else acts to protect and defend the absolute power over society of the rich, and they, for reasons of their own, some obvious and some more hidden and sinister, do not want climate destabilisation acknowledged, let alone addressed.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As ever, working people, those who create all the ‘wealth’ in human societies will fix it all, and sooner or later the insatiably greedy ‘wealth accumulators’ will go back to their scheming and speculation. Of course, in the end, after a string of these storms, with sea-levels risen, the city will be abandoned, like London, Shanghai etc

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As Tiberius said of the adulatory Roman Senate, ‘Men fit to be slaves’.

  15. Stephen says:

    Just had a look at a map of your nuclear plants … Eek! I hope the NRC know what they’re doing.

  16. DonB says:

    @Francesca Rheannon

    Certainly, Rachel Maddow and, most adamantly every time he gets a chance, Chris Hayes, DO make Climate Change connections regularly on MSNBC.

    But the weather information comes from The Weather Channel, whose owner/CEO is a AGW Denier. Thus the pressure may be coming from that direction, which would make more sense.

  17. Chip says:

    Stephen I would like to see that video. Do you have a link or a website where I can find it ?

  18. DonB says:

    There was a short paragraph I read a year or so ago where it was pointed out that a study had shown that more than half of all the cars on the cross streets (East-West) was drivers circling around looking for on-street parking (probably to avoid the high cost of parking garages?).

    Bloomberg tried a few years ago to institute toll charges on cars coming into NYC below, I think, 125th Street, but maybe a street further north, in an effort to copy London and reduce traffic. Anyway, the push-back was tremendous and he suffered one of his few big failures.

  19. DonB says:

    I meant to say that the weather presenters on MSNBC are employees of The Weather Channel.

  20. DonB says:

    It was so nice to read that section of the book again. I strongly recommend getting it if you can find a copy. Tidwell did a thorough research job on climate/warming and as you might get from this short excerpt, it presents the data in a compelling way. [Unless the reader is a denier, of course; then there is no hope of convincing them. And those people are not the overly macho types that governors and mayors are trying to prevent from “showing off” before they effectively commit suicide.]

  21. Paul Klinkman says:

    Reports are coming in and they aren’t good. The subways are flooded. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel had a river going down it. Power is out in Lower Manhattan, probably because the subways are flooded. An explosion took place at a Con Ed substation. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange is under 3 feet of water.

    We’re going to find out if Lower Manhattan has no more electric lines and no more phone lines. We’ll find out if salt water affects fiber optic lines. Right now we have lots of skyscrapers with no power. I heard a report that the subways can be pumped out in 4 days, but what happens to the electricity after that is a question.

    The Lower Manhattan traffic lights don’t work. Whoever has the most beat-up car gets the de facto right of way.

  22. Anastasie says:

    I think politicians will continue to ignore or deny global warming until they see a way they can use it to further their personal ambitions. The same will hold true for the people who control the large corporations that fund them

  23. leber says:

    No one wants to watch mainstream media anymore except people who don’t go online. With an internet as a source of info, people can become well aware of things like global warming. No one sane watches regular TV anymore.