Underreported: Is NYC Ready for a Major Hurricane?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

70 years ago, in September 1938, a major hurricane struck the northeast and killed almost 700 people…and caused the modern equivalent of nearly 5 billion dollars in damage! Find out whether the New York City metro area is prepared for another major hurricane, and the disasters that could follow. Sarah Newkirk is Coastal Program Director of The Nature Conservancy on Long Island; Dr. Nicholas Coch is Professor in the Queens College School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.


Dr. Nicholas Coch and Sarah Newkirk

Comments [10]


There are 2 social aspects that I found fascinating, but that no book deals with in a substantive way.

--The storm hit the most developed seacoast of the day. As such, many of the people affected were rich, their domestic help poor and/or black.

One woman successfully escaped her LI beach manse with the heroic aid of her help. The two were walking in rising water along a street when a car came by rescuing stragglers. When the black man went to get in, the driver said, "N___s don't ride in this car."

In a time of massive terror and confusion, a combined army/navy force was sent into the full fury of the storm off Newport, RI, to rescue Pierrepont Johnson, Jr. Master Pierrepont's nurse's last words were uttered as she struggled to stay afloat long enough to pass him to his rescuers, "Don't let the water get in the baby's mouth."

--The psychological after-effects were intense. Many people were so traumatized they never got over the experience. One man, institutionalized for the rest of his life, kept trying to run for the stairs. One woman said she found the recollection to be far more disturbing than the experience itself.

Sep. 04 2008 02:46 PM

There have been at least 2 recent books written about the 1938 storm ("Sudden Sea" and "The Great Hurriane: 1938"); neither is particularly well-written, but each is serviceable, and each contain incredible, astounding stories. Well worth reading.

The '70s book, "A Wind to Shake the World," contains a veritable treasure trove of stories, but is unorganized, a bit daunting to get through.

Sep. 04 2008 02:43 PM
Vicki McGrath from Chatham, NJ

Part of the reason for the high number of fatalities during the 1938 hurricane is that people in the Northeast living near the coast used to go to the beach to watch big storms. There was very little thought to evacuate or even to secure houses or other buildings against damage. My family had a house on the Rhode Island shore that sustained minor wind damage in 1938. But many houses in town were severely damaged or completely destroyed during that hurricane. 44 summer houses had been built along a mile-long spit of land between the ocean and the bay. All of those houses were wiped out. Wisely, they were never rebuilt.

So now the public is much more aware of personal safety when it comes to hurricanes, but we vastly increased the potential for property damage and loss with our overbuilding throughout the mid-Atlantic and southern New England coast.

Sep. 04 2008 02:25 PM
Scott A. from Astoria, Queens, NYC

Obviously evacuation can not be the answer, as the guests correctly pointed out. However, I think my #'s still stand. By that I mean that those who do have to evacuate - maybe 10% - would clearly have to move more than 10 miles.
So, move 10% of the people 10 times as far at the same rate and it'll still take you a week. *Maybe* this could be improved with a higher flow rate if fewer people are trying to move. In all reality though, evacuees would need to move inland by FAR more than 10 miles - not necessarily because of flooding, which would be quick and limited due to terrain, but because of population density - there just isn't a good place to put that many people close to the city.

It still leaves you with millions of people in an urban environment with no services. Heck, most New Yorkers don't even have more than 3 days worth of condiments in their fridge, let alone a weeks worth of non-perishables. A very high percentage of meals are eaten out at restaurants, which rely on a constant stream of just-in-time supplies.

Sep. 04 2008 02:09 PM
Barb from Shark River Hills from Shark River Hills, NJ

Here on the NJ Shore the insurance companies are very aware! Homeowners insurance a few years ago had a rather hefty $5000 deductible for hurricane damage--last year it was 2% of total insured value and this year 4%.

Sep. 04 2008 02:05 PM
Cynthia Barton from Brooklyn

New York City has one of the most progressive approaches in the country to the problem of housing after a major hurricane. NYC's Office of Emergency Management, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and support from Architecture for Humanity New York, has just concluded a design competition on this topic, called "What if New York City..." See the results for New York's post-disaster housing at

Sep. 04 2008 02:01 PM
Lane Trippe from New York (New Orleans Emigree)

Just FYI, New Orleans has one of the best pumping systems in the world, developed by an engineer at Tulane more than 70 years ago. Engineers come from around the world to study our pumps and pumping systems.
(If we DIDN'T have such good pumps -- capable of clearing better than an inch of rainfall an hour -- we'd be underwater through the summer rainy season.)

Sep. 04 2008 01:51 PM

Sure, we're in NYC, but the 1938 "Long Island Express" took the most lives in RI, damaged much in CT and MA, and even killed 1 person in VT.

The houses on Westhampton beach were wiped out, except for 2.

NYC: There is an online Hurricane Evacuation Route in case of flooding. Basically, head uphill for the center of the island.

The big area hurricanes I remember offhand were the Great Storm of 1635, one in 1815 and one in the late 1800s.

1938 hit on a weekday afternoon, wiping out the rail lines, blocking the roads with trees, and wiping out all electricity. So workers desperately trying to get home were pretty out of luck.

The waterfront today seems incredibly vulnerable, even moreso than in 1938.

Sep. 04 2008 01:51 PM
Scott A. from Astoria, Queens, NYC

It would take over WEEK to move 17 Million People just one mile on clogged roads in a best, best, best case scenario.

I'll provide how I came to that # below, just in case anybody cares to follow along, or point out flaws in my assumptions.

17 Million People
20 Mile/Hr Traffic (very generous)
5280 Cars packed into each lane/mile **
60 Lanes of moving traffic ***
31680 car/mile in all lanes ****
3 people per car
95040 people in each mile *****

178.87 hours to move everybody just 1 mile, or about 7.5 DAYS (*6)

If you want to move everybody inland by 30 miles, well, good luck...

** 5280 feet/mile, and 10ft from front bumper to front bumper
*** there are only 3 or 4 major roads leading directly inland from the NYC metro area. We need to assume you can't move along the shore b/c people from other regions are evacuating, so directly inland is your only option. Lets assume that the smaller roads give you another major highway's worth of road, for a total of 5 major roads, each with 6 lanes, plus another 6 lanes of reversed traffic - you get about 60 lanes of reliable traffic flow in the best case.
**** 31680 cars/mile = 60 lanes times 5280 cars in each of those lanes per mile
***** 95040 people /mile when you put 3 people in each of those cars
(*6) 7.5 days = 180 Hours = 17 million people divided by 95040 people in each mile

Sep. 04 2008 01:47 PM
Scott A. from Astoria, Queens, NYC

The NYC area would _never_ be able to effectively evacuate. This means the city would have to make other plans, in addition to trying to get people out. Let's take a look at the problem of evacuation.

% of households _without_ access to a car:
8% - American average
14% - New Orleans
42% - NYC

Louisiana recently evacuated about 2 Million people - NYC would have to evacuate at least 8 times that many - a problem that becomes MUCH more difficult due to the density of that population.

It was a stretch to evacuate just 2 million people from the Louisiana coast - a process that clogged every major road in both direction for days. NY has about __17.3 Million__ people living within a couple miles of the coast. Most of whom would be trying to evacuate on an already WAY over-burdened road system. Even if rail is able to take a portion of that burden, things don't look very good. (especially when metro rail services get washed out during the later half of the evacuation)

You normally can't go more than 30 miles within the NYC metro area in less than an hour even in the best conditions. These would be _far_ from the best of conditions. I'll provide some rough calculations in a bit to show how daunting this would be.

Sep. 04 2008 01:27 PM

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