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Submerged city: is it only a matter of time before a nightmare storm strikes New York City?


Howling winds rush between New York City's skyscrapers, shattering windows and uprooting trees. A 7.6 meter (25 foot) wall of water sweeps over Lower Manhattan, submerging the financial district and popular neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy (see map, top of p. 9). Subways fill with seawater. Millions of New Yorkers who evacuated the danger zone can't return to their devastated homes.

Is this the script from a disaster movie? No, it's a scenario that experts warn could play out in real life. Hurricanes have hit the Northeast barely missing the city in the past. And a 2001 report ranked New York the third-most-vulnerable U.S. city to hurricanes, right behind New Orleans and Miami.

New Orleans found out the hard way what can happen when a major hurricane strikes a vulnerable city. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,800 people and filled New Orleans with floodwaters, forcing the city's residents to flee their homes and take shelter in public arenas like the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. With New York City's population at more than 8 million--16 times the population of New Orleans--could such a tragedy multiply many times over?


The reason for concern isn't that the Big Apple is a hurricane hot spot. Atlantic hurricanes form far from New York in the tropics, usually between the months of June and November. Warm water evaporating from the ocean fuels their swirling, high-speed winds. As a hurricane rotates, slow-moving streams of air called trade winds carry it across the ocean. Fortunately, most hurricanes run out of steam without reaching land. Areas in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southeastern U.S. are at greatest risk for an Atlantic hurricane hit, since the trade winds push storms in this direction.

The trade winds move at only 16 to 24 kilometers (10 to 15 miles) per hour, which gives people in the storm's path time to prepare. But some storms turn north and are swept up by faster winds. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains, "If you get up to [higher] latitudes, the winds tend to be much stronger. And so the hurricanes, when they get embedded in those winds, move faster."


This means that a hurricane on track for New York could accelerate, forcing city residents to act fast. "Accelerating hurricanes will cause watches and warnings to be issued more suddenly," says Gary Conte, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Upton, New York, office. "So people will certainly have less time to prepare for an approaching hurricane which is forecast to accelerate here across the Northeast United States."


Usually, such a hurricane wouldn't strike the city directly, because land to the south of New York acts as a shield. Most strong storms pass to the east of the city. That's what happened in 1938, when New England's worst recorded hurricane struck. Although this monster storm killed hundreds of people in the Northeastern U.S., its strongest winds missed New York City.

But the city's geographical location could also be its downfall. New York City sits on a bight, a curve in the coastline that forms New York Bay. If a hurricane were to strike this spot, the storm surge (water pushed toward shore by a hurricane) would funnel into the bay, piling up until it flooded parts of Manhattan. Emanuel explains, "For the same storm hitting New York, at least at the right angle, you could get a far bigger storm surge than that storm hitting a straight coastline, because the water has nowhere to escape."

"That's the nightmare scenario for New York," says Greg Holland, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The nightmare has happened before. In 1821, a hurricane swept into the bay. The trapped water rose into a 13-foot storm surge that put Lower Manhattan underwater.

Back then, not many people lived in the flooded area. But today, this region is densely populated and includes miles of subway tunnels. If a stronger hurricane were to strike this spot, Conte says, "You could end up with surge values ranging from 20 to 25-plus feet across portions of New York City."

This funnel effect is the reason the Big Apple ranks so high on the hurricane risk list. Holland says, "In New York, the chances of getting [a hurricane] are actually fairly remote, but when you get one, if it's anything like the right track, then the consequences are going to be enormous."


There is more bad news: Atlantic hurricanes appear to run in cycles. In the mid-1990s, a new cycle started in which both the number and intensity of hurricanes have increased. Holland says, "It's the classic double whammy."

Normally, scientists would expect the cycle to run its course and the number of hurricanes to decrease. But climate change could throw a wrench in the cycle as rising sea surface temperatures and shifting wind patterns affect hurricane formation and tracks. "Climate change is expected to affect hurricane activity in ways that we're still struggling to grasp," Emanuel says. Some studies predict that the number of hurricanes will drop but that the storms will become more intense.

The chance of the nightmare storm hitting the Big Apple may be small, but city officials are taking it seriously (see "Preparing for the Worst," below). Even though New Yorkers need not live in fear, experts urge them to have a disaster plan. After all, says Holland, "it gets pretty hard to think logically once the winds start howling and the water starts running around your ankles." A little forethought can make a big difference in an emergency.

nuts & bolts


Although hurricanes don't pound the Northeast often, they have hit in the past. This map shows hurricane strikes * in the Northeast between 1950 and 2007. Which storm had wind speeds between 154 and 177 km (96 and 110 mi) per hour when it struck? Which hurricane greatly affected both Massachusetts and Maine?


New York City officials have identified the areas most likely to be threatened by storm surges. A total of 2.3 million people live in these regions. Which areas they would evacuate would depend on the severity of the approaching storm. Officials expect most evacuees would shelter with friends and family. For the rest, they've identified shelters that can hold a total of 600,000 people. Last spring, officials even held a competition in which they challenged architects to create plans for housing displaced residents while ruined neighborhoods are rebuilt (see entry, right).



New Yorkers have weathered hurricanes in the past.


A monster storm struck the coast of Long Island, destroying homes.



Streets flooded as Hurricane Carol lashed Long Island.



New Yorkers struggled to remain standing during Hurricane Donna.



* Which cities in the United States rank as the top three most vulnerable to hurricanes?


* U.S. scientists have started testing a tiny, satellite-guided drone to study the development of tropical storms. The unmanned Aerosonde Mark III, which resembles a remote-controlled plane, weighs about 13 kilograms (28 pounds) and has a wingspan of less than 3 meters (10 feet). It can fly for about 1,127 kilometers (700 miles) on one gallon of fuel, and travel to areas where regular aircraft can't reach to gather valuable storm information, such as wind speeds and air temperature.


* New York City's Office of Emergency Management recommends that every household be prepared for a hurricane by packing a "Go Bag." This bag should contain items that a household would need in the event of an evacuation. Have students make a list of what they would pack in their family's "Go Bag." For more reformation, visit:


LANGUAGE ARTS: Grace Nicols is a Guyana-born poet who now lives in England. In 1987, a hurricane hit the southern coast of England--a rare occurrance. The unusual event prompted Nicols to write the poem "Hurricane Hits England." You'll find the poem along with an audio clip of Nicols reading it at this Web site: Have the class read along while listening to the clip. Then, have the class discuss the following: Why is the hurricane important to the poet? What is Nichols trying to convey to her readers? You can find background information here:


* The Weather Channel has a program about natural disasters called It Could Happen Tomorrow. One episode explores what would happen if a major hurricane were to wallop New York City. Visit the show's interactive Web site to see video clips and other information related to the show:

* For kid-friendly activities on hurricanes, including interactive games, visit this Web site from the Federal Emergency Management Agency:

* This Web site has many links to information on hurricanes:

Fill in the blanks to complete the following sentences.

1. A recent report ranked New York City the--most-vulnerable U.S. city to hurricanes.

2. Atlantic hurricanes generally form between the months of--and--. and

3.--evaporating from the ocean fuels a hurricane's winds. As the hurricane rotates, slow-moving streams of air called-- --carry it across the ocean.

4. New York City sits on a--, or a curve in the coastline. At such a location, a--, or water pushed toward shore by a hurricane, would easily funnel into the bay.


1. third

2. June, November

3. warm water: trade winds

4. bight: storm surge
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:EARTH: HURRICANES
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Previous Article:Number in the news.
Next Article:Hands-on science: no lab required.

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