New York City and Hurricanes: A Brief History

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Mariana Villa is an HNN intern and a student at Buena Vista University.

Storm surge from the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane. Credit: NOAA/NWS Historic Collection.

The tree lay down
on the garage roof
and stretched, You
have your heaven,
it said, go to it.

--William Carlos Williams, “The Hurricane”

Despite the current mayhem and losses caused by Hurricane Sandy, New York City is no stranger to Mother Nature’s wrath. In the days before NASA and the National Weather Service, people did not have the means to track down a storm or predict the its level of gravity. Due to these impediments, the information available on hurricanes prior to the 1800s is rather limited.

It would not be until after the mid-1800s that observation networks, stations, and weather maps began to be set and compiled, an development that was temporarily interrupted by the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. After this conflict, however, the forerunner of the National Weather Service, the Weather Bureau, was established in 1870 under the Grant administration, becoming a civilian agency in 1890. Eight years later, President McKinley had the Weather Bureau establish a hurricane warning network in the West Indies. In 1904, the airplanes began to be used for the purpose of conducting upper air atmospheric research, and by 1909 the Weather Bureau began making free-rising balloon observations. As more technological advancements and research began to be made, the ability to forecast weather continued to evolve into the sophisticated system of today.

On September 3, 1821, a few decades before the general effort was made to compile and study the weather, one of the only hurricanes believed to have trailed over parts of modern New York City was recorded. Tides rose 13 feet in an hour, alarming New Yorkers as they saw wharves be submerged under water and the East and Hudson rivers converge as one across lower Manhattan as far north as Canal Street. Flooding was reported in the more sparsely populated neighborhoods, attributing to a few deaths as a result.

In 1893 another hurricane, believed to have been a Category 1 or 2, destroyed Hog Island. This mile-long barrier landmass was located off the Rockaways in southern Queens. After the Civil War, it had been turned into a resort island containing saloons and bathhouses catering to the city’s politicians and businessmen. The hurricane left New York City a mess. Central Park had hundreds of its trees uprooted, boats ank with their crews, while the brand-new Metropolitan Life Building on Madison Avenue was damaged. In addition, a 30-foot storm surge devastated southern Brooklyn and Queens.

The “Long Island Express” hurricane of 1938, is believed to have been a Category 5 hurricane when it passed over Puerto Rico on September 18 and 19, though it weakened to Category 3 when it made landfall over Long Island. Long Island carried the brunt of the destruction -- nearly 200 people were killed before the storm turned to strike New England. On a letter detailing his experience, Arthur D. Raynor who resided in Westhampton at this time, despaired at the relative helplessness of man against nature:

Water! For the first time it dawned on me that Grandfather was dead. He had gone on the bay as usual to run his eel pots, and if a thing the size of that dredge could wind up a half mile from its mooring up on the highway, what chance did the old man have in those little boats of his?

While New York City experienced the weaker “left side” of the storm, the city reported 10 deaths and sustained millions of dollars in damage.

In 1954, Hurricane Carol, with winds ranging 100 mph, proved to be the most destructive hurricane to strike the Northeast since the “Long Island Express.” Following in the footsteps of its destructive predecessor, Carol was rated as a Category 3 storm. As in 1938, New York City was relatively spared of any direct contact with the hurricane, though it did experience damage from major flooding.

A year later, in August 1955, Hurricanes Connie and Diane lashed their fury against the North Carolina coast. Connie had begun as a storm over the tropics on August 3 and took two days to reach hurricane strength, making landfall over North Carolina on August 12 as a Category 3 hurricane. While no deaths were reported, 12 inches of rain fell over New York, and damages amounted to approximately $40 million. Category 1 Hurricane Diane made landfall over the Carolinas on August 17. The additional 10 to 20 inches of rain resulted in more than 200 deaths in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

1960's Hurricane Donna this storm delivered an 11-foot tide against the New York harbor, damaging the pier.

Though Hurricane Agnes of 1972 was a barely a Category 1 hurricane when it made its landfall in Florida, when it made its way to the Northeast it combined with another storm system. This marriage of the two storms resulted in heavy rains ranging from 14 to 19 inches, severely flooding Virginia up to New York, causing 122 deaths and $2.1 billion worth of damage (approximately $6 billion in today’s dollars).

According to the National Hurricane Center, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico have begun to unleash more frequent and damaging storms, especially true after 1995. For example, in 2005, a record number of 15 hurricanes were produced in the Atlantic.

Aside from a few unrealized threats in 1995 and 1996 -- only Hurricane Bertha managed to soak the city with heavy rains in 1996 -- it would not be until 1999 when New York City was whalloped by another hurricane, Hurricane Floyd.

Hurricane Floyd, a Category 4 storm when it approached the central Bahamas on September 13, had weakened to a Category 2 storm when it collided with the North Carolina coast three days later. As it continued its northeastern trek along the mid-Atlantic coast up to New England, it merged with a large non-tropical low pressure system. This resulted in large amounts of rain. As a result, hundreds of people residing in counties outside the five boroughs were forced to evacuate. New York City also closed schools for the first time in three years, and the issued precautionary measures, like the designation of emergency storm shelters.

Finnaly, Hurricane Irene, the most recent storm before Hurricane Sandy, hit New York City last year. Classified as a tropical storm, it nevertheless led the government to issue the first-ever mandatory evacuation of its coastal areas on August 26. The number of evacuees included 370,000 the entire Rockaway Peninsula. Over 10,000 sought shelter in one of the 81 shelters established, while others sought family and friends outside the evacuation zones. Up to 7 inches of rain fell with winds reaching 65 mph. Monetary losses amounted to an estimated $100 million. About $13.6 million was approved by the federal government to be distributed amongst 8,000 residents to aid in disaster recovery.

Hurricane Sandy's estimated cost? $50 billion.

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