The City That Plans to be Flooded

By: Douglas Hill , 2:22 PM GMT on December 02, 2011

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A guest post by Douglas Hill, a consulting engineer and an adjunct lecturer at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York.

Hurricane Irene, remember? Irene, diminished to a mere tropical storm when it struck New York City, came and went, soon disappearing from the news. But think back to August 26 when Irene, a Category 3 hurricane with winds of more than 110 miles per hour, was approaching the North Carolina coast and headed directly for New York City. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called a news conference to order 370,000 people to evacuate their homes. Then he stepped aside, and MTA chairman Jay Walder stepped to the microphone and announced that public transportation--buses as well as trains--was being shut down.


Figure 1. GOES-East visible satellite image of Irene taken at 7:45 am EDT on Sunday, August 28, 2011. At the time, Irene was a tropical storm with 65 mph winds, making landfall on Long Island, New York. Image credit: NOAA Environmental Visualization laboratory.

Evacuation without transportation: a novel concept that the mayor described as "preparing for the worst and hoping for the best." Fortunately, hoping for the best worked.

Unfortunately, the City is still hoping for the best, and it is not preparing for the worst. The coastal storm plan of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) includes strategies for storm tracking, public information, evacuation procedures, people with special needs, recovery, and restoration, but nothing to prevent flooding.

In other words, New York City is planning to be flooded--and according to the National Hurricane Center, it will be. Based on the historical record, hurricanes of Categories 1, 2 and 3 will strike the New York region on an average of every 17, 39 and 68 years, respectively. The City has been overdue for a Category 1 hurricane--Irene should have been no surprise--and we may expect hurricanes of Categories 2 and 3 within the next decade or two. In testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, Max Mayfield, the former director of the National Hurricane Center, said, "It is not a question of if a major hurricane will strike the New York area, but when" (his emphasis.)

The greatest potential for loss of life from a hurricane has historically been from the storm surge. If the eye of a Category 3 hurricane crossed the New Jersey shore, the surge could reach 24 feet--compared with 4.5 feet in Hurricane Irene's--flooding the World Trade Center site and Wall Street, with City Hall resting on a separate island south of the rest of Manhattan. The ripples from a crippled financial district in lower Manhattan would be felt worldwide. In a severe hurricane, the OEM has estimated that up to three million people would have to evacuate, if that can be imagined.



Figure 2. The height above ground that a mid-strength Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds would push a storm surge into New York City in a worst-case scenario. The image was generated using the primary computer model used by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to forecast storm surge--the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model. The accuracy of the SLOSH model is advertised as plus or minus 20%. This "Maximum Water Depth" image shows the water depth at each grid cell of the SLOSH domain. Thus, if you are inland at an elevation of ten feet above mean sea level, and the combined storm surge and tide (the "storm tide") is fifteen feet at your location, the water depth image will show five feet of inundation. This Maximum of the "Maximum Envelope of Waters" (MOM) image was generated for high tide and is a composite of the maximum storm surge found for dozens of individual runs of different Category 2 storms with different tracks. Thus, no single storm will be able to cause the level of flooding depicted in this SLOSH storm surge image. Consult wunderground's Storm Surge Inundation Maps page for more storm surge images of the U.S. coast.

Other major ports have taken measures to prevent being flooded. After the 1938 hurricane, storm surge barriers were built in New England to protect New Bedford, Providence and Stamford. After a disastrous storm in the North Sea in 1953, the Thames Barrier was built to protect London, and the Delta Plan was started in the Netherlands which includes three such barriers, one protecting Rotterdam, Europe's busiest port. Following Hurricane Katrina, a long-disputed barrier was constructed at the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain along with several others, which are now considered to make New Orleans hurricane-proof to Category 3 storms. Barriers are being completed to protect St. Petersburg, Russia, and Venice, Italy.

The heart of New York City could be protected in the same way. Moveable barriers, closed only when the city is threatened with major coastal flooding, could be placed at the upper end of the East River, across the Narrows and at the mouth of the Arthur Kill. Possibly, the latter two could be replaced with a single, longer barrier extending from Sandy Hook to the Rockaway peninsula. Modeling studies have demonstrated that the barriers would work. Four major engineering firms have presented conceptual designs and cost estimates for barriers at these locations. The estimated costs for these individual barriers range from $1 billion to $4.6 billion, with the total of the two or three needed less than $10 billion, comparable to other major infrastructure projects planned or underway.


Figure 3. Proposed hurricane storm surge barrier for New York City near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Image credit: Arcadis, Inc.

But unlike the original, the 2010 revision of plaNYC, the City's principal planning document, makes no reference to storm surge barriers. The City's latest plans are seen in the March 2011 Vision 2020: NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which calls not for protecting the waterfront, but for climate "resilience," the ability to withstand and recover from the disaster. Unfortunately, this may be the best that can be done for those living in the coastal sections of the boroughs that face the Atlantic Ocean.

So the Great Evacuation of August 2011 is a test. In its postmortem on the storm on September 5, the New York Times concluded that "by almost any measure, the evacuation was a success," but it did not report on the principal measure. How many people were left behind? Unlike New Orleans after Katrina, we won't know by counting the bodies. Not this time, anyway.

Douglas Hill, EngScD, P.E., Stony Brook University

Other posts in this series
Storm surge barriers: the New England Experience
Hurricane Irene: New York City's close call

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Overhyped...........Probably not. Sure hope we never find out as a hit on the Financial Bulls-eye of the world would not be a good one would suspect.
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Quoting Neapolitan:
Thanks, Doug. Basically, then:
The Greater New York City 2012 Storm Surge Inundation Prevention Plan:

Step 1: Cross fingers.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 as long as possible.

When New Orleans was temporarily knocked out of commission after Katrina, the financial and logistic ripples were felt worldwide--and that's when the economy was relatively stable. Imagine, then, the world's financial center being offline for many weeks or months in the aftermath of the direct hit of a major storm, especially now when both the US and global economies are in such a precarious position.

Overhyped? Really?


2012 is gonna be a hellava ride, buckle up. Economic disaster is on the way, storms are gonna devastate, earthquakes, floods, people WILL start thinking the end of the world is coming....and it might just be...
Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9628
11. Skyepony (Mod)
This is the same sort of premonition & apprehension that many of us had about New Orleans before Katrina. Hope they look into the evacuation without transportation plans. Considering the plans that were in place in New Orleans that were ignored, may not do any good anyway. The human mind is a funny thing. I'm amazed how hard it was for me, recently to walk away from a piece of land at a steal that was 3 feet above sea level.


Did my daily update & looked the world over..Navy has dropped 99L. NOAA still has a floater on it. Looking at some of the waves out there & the amplifying, deep digging fronts coming their way..may see another invest in the next 3-5 days. There is the wave at the Windward Islands that's a little higher than expected & that decent wave riding around 10N in the Central Atlantic. I'll give the latter the best chance but either have opportunity to at least be an invest at some point.

90B is new, 05A is a naked shadow of it's former self..

99S is new..impressive enough in moisture to get a floater (up in my blog).

Other note-able extratropical lows would be the 1009mb one N of Hawaii. & the 967mb low east of Greenland..that looks tight on ASCAT..Ya'll look out for that one in the UK & Norway in a few days.
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Thanks, Doug. Basically, then:
The Greater New York City 2012 Storm Surge Inundation Prevention Plan:

Step 1: Cross fingers.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 as long as possible.

When New Orleans was temporarily knocked out of commission after Katrina, the financial and logistic ripples were felt worldwide--and that's when the economy was relatively stable. Imagine, then, the world's financial center being offline for many weeks or months in the aftermath of the direct hit of a major storm, especially now when both the US and global economies are in such a precarious position.

Overhyped? Really?
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Need to move this bulls eye over TX

Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9628
GFS showing extremely cold air in TX panhandle and west TX on Tuesday/Wed.
Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9628
WOW! You can bet this will cause some serious flooding across the mid South.

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Nothing about the crazy wind storm out west?
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People were also accusing Jeff Masters of spewing hype 5 days before Katrina when he predicted the levees of New Orleans might breach.
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Thanks Doug, it seems to me, that for a Cat.2 or Cat. 3 storm to directly affect NYC, it must be a fast mover, by that I mean it's foreward speed must be at least 30mph while moving up the coast.(remember the 1938 storm, barreled northward at speeds between 50-60mph.) Irean was moving at a relatively, slow pace, 14-18mph. if I remember correctly, as it was moving up and over NC. and further north. A storm would need a fast pace so it would not have time to degrade, from cooler water, and land interaction on it's west side. This fast pace would add to the logisistical problem, giving officials less time for any evacuations they might order.This is something to consider.
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Quoting mistymountainhop:
Doug, this is majorly overhyped. Amusing nonetheless.

Thanks for making me cancel my subscription to the National Inquirer when I can get this stuff for free right here.
Only overhyped if it never happens! The possibility exists however,so they must spend billions in case it does.
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Thanks Doug...
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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.