With its roaring winds, battering waves, and sweeping surge, Sandy reminded New Yorkers that hurricanes are not a rarity in the New York Metropolitan Area. Whether Sandy will officially be classified as a hurricane at landfall or a powerful post-tropical cyclone in the final analysis is a technical issue that changes little. The risk of tropical cyclone impacts is real.
Since 1800, New Jersey, New York, and/or Connecticut have experienced 19 hurricanes (Category 1 or stronger winds). Seven of those storms brought Category 2 or 3 winds to a portion of the region (often parts of Long Island and coastal Connecticut). Research by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, Director of the International Hurricane Research Center ranked eastern Long Island as the nation’s seventh most vulnerable area to hurricane impacts. Hurricanes brought Category 2 or 3 winds to part of the New Jersey, New York, and/or Connecticut in 1804, 1815, 1938 (“Long Island Express”), 1944 (“Great Atlantic Hurricane”), 1954 (Carol), 1960 (Donna), and 1991 (Bob).
Although the 1821 hurricane brought Category 1 winds to the New York City area, it ranks as one of the region’s greatest storms. Its track brought a 13-foot storm surge into New York Harbor and up the Hudson River. Lower Manhattan was flooded up to Canal Street. Its storm surge remained unsurpassed until Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey on October 29.
The September 12, 1821 issue of the Providence Patriot wrote of the hurricane’s impact in New York City:
On Monday afternoon [September 3] we had a gale of wind, which has seldom been exceeded for violence… The wind increased until 7 o’clock, blowing in tremendous squalls, which tore up the oldest and strongest trees in the city by the roots, threw down whole stacks of chimneys, crushed the roofs of houses, broke glasses, did great damage to shipping and the Battery, and created great panic in the city.
The September 14, 1821 edition of the New Bedford Mercury added:
Such was the power of the wind upon the water, that last evening at 7 o’clock, the time of low water, many of our docks were inundated, and many vessels were on their beam ends, with their masts across the piers. Most of the storehouses on the East side of the town, adjacent to the River, had their cellars filled with water.
The Providence Patriot also reported that the “docks, wharves, piers, &c. were all swept away” at Jersey City and on Long Island’s South Shore “the tide…was four inches higher than recollected by the oldest inhabitants.”
The 1938 hurricane remains the benchmark by which the area’s hurricanes have been measured. That storm roared northward bending somewhat to the west, catching New York and New England largely unprepared before blasting it with extreme winds and a devastating storm surge.
The historical record shows that the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut Tri-State area, including the greater New York City area, face a real hurricane risk. With coastal property in those three states valued at more than $6 billion and a large area in New York City and the adjacent region lying less than 10 feet above sea level, coastal property and infrastructure remain vulnerable to such storms.
Finally, my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected by Sandy. Under the leadership of Lehman College President Ricardo R. Fernández, the Campus provided an invaluable service to the community in sheltering evacuees and affected residents. Lehman’s Public Safety, Building and Grounds, I.T., Cafeteria, and APEX staff and all the volunteers were instrumental in providing and maintaining critical services. All of them deserve our gratitude for their tireless efforts.
Left: Hurricane Wind Analysis for Sandy just before landfall (NOAA's Hurricane Research Division); Right: Sandy's waves on the Long Island Sound batter the coastline