The Atlantic hurricane season begins today, and officials expect an average to above average number of so-called named storms. In a briefing last week, staff at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said they expected five to nine hurricanes to form and between 12 and 17 lesser storms. The likelihood of one of these striking a particular point on the United States is low — but it takes just one for there to be massive damage, weeks of disruption, and months to repair infrastructure. Here on eastern Long Island, where development has pushed right up to and sometimes past the water’s edge, a direct hit from a Category 3 or higher hurricane would be catastrophic.
Few people remain who can remember the 1938 hurricane and the devastation it took from Long Island nearly to Canada as it charged ashore. In those days, it was said that there were no hurricanes here, memories of a handful of 19th-century storms having faded. Old-timers talked of “corn twisters” that could level crops and “line storms,” when the sun had passed the fall equinox. The line in this case being the moment when the sun is directly overhead at the equator, after which days get shorter and colder in the Northern Hemisphere as winter approaches.
Prediction methods were rudimentary then, too. In fact, the science that led to an understanding of the forces that steer the storms had only just begun. There were no satellites watching from above. Forecasters relied on the few reports sent from ships that chanced into a tropical system. Generally, when anyone realized that a hurricane or tropical storm was on its way, it was too late to do anything to get ready. Yet, even with modern technology able to pinpoint where one will strike, there is little that can be done to lessen the effects.
Hurricanes and named storms did $117 billion in damage to the United States last year, NOAA said. So-called Superstorm Sandy in 2012 cost U.S. taxpayers $50 billion in relief authorized by Congress and untold billions more in uncounted localized and personal damage. New York City alone accounted for $17 billion of the total federal funding.
Sandy was not even the “big one.” When it made its initial landfall in New Jersey, it was barely a hurricane, with sustained winds of just 80 miles per hour. Its storm surge — a dome of water above normal high tide — was nine feet; Hurricane Katrina, which rolled over New Orleans in 2005 at Category 3, packed a surge of 28 feet. Sandy was notable in one important way, its geographical extent, with tropical storm-force winds spanning nearly 1,000 miles. It was the 18th named storm of that year and developed toward the traditional end of hurricane season, reaching Long Island on Oct. 29. The 1938 hurricane arrived on Sept. 21 and was an estimated Category 3.
In the nearly 85 years since 1938, the Atlantic climate has become more favorable for storm formation. Climate change has warmed the ocean, providing more fuel for tropical weather disruptions. Warmer, wetter air is capable of producing more powerful storms. NOAA released a separate report last week describing researchers’ confidence that storms are already stronger, with higher winds and more rainfall. They see a greater number of Category 4 and 5 storms annually, too. Because of sea level rise, coastal inundation will reach farther inland than before. At the same time, in the decades since 1938, here on Long Island, waterfront development has grown exponentially.
Regardless of the number of storms this year or any other year, the impact of a single event on Long Island could have nearly unimaginable effects. For individuals, action taken today can save lives when disaster strikes. For public officials, getting ready is an ongoing challenge and a looming problem that few appear to take seriously enough.