AP photo by Gerry Broome|
The tide rolls in toward beach-front houses and hotels surrounded by sandbags to protect them from the ocean in Nags Head, N.C. Scientists fear that a strong hurricane with a significant storm surge would drown most of the island.
Where’s the next New Orleans?
Galveston, New York City, Miami among top 5 places most vulnerable to a powerful hurricane this season, AP finds
The Associated Press
Just because Katrina was the perfect storm — a catastrophic combo of the wrong hurricane in the wrong place at the wrong time — doesn’t mean that history can’t repeat itself, leaving another city obliterated by another tempest.
And as we enter what weather prognosticators are euphemistically calling another “active season,” citizens and civil servants from Texas to New England are asking themselves: Where’s the next New Orleans?
The Associated Press has pinpointed five of the most vulnerable U.S. coastal spots.
Among them: Galveston, Texas, sitting uneasily by the Gulf of Mexico, its residents limited to a single evacuation route; Miami, full of elderly people and others who might be trapped; and New York City, long spared a major storm but susceptible to a calamity of submerged subways and refugees caught in horrendous traffic jams.
Like so many other places, they are vulnerable because of geography. But mostly, they are imperiled because Americans have a love affair with the coast.
The Census Bureau estimates that 35 million people — 12 percent of the population — live in the coastal counties most threatened by Atlantic hurricanes. That figure has more than tripled since 1950, and the Census isn’t even counting the Northern coastal states.
“When I was growing up on the Redneck Riviera, most of the stuff we built was built out of plywood, and you built it with your cousins on a weekend,” says Margaret Davidson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center. “And if it blew away, you got yourselves a keg of beer and you got your relatives together and you went out and built it again.
“And what we now have strewn across the coast is a bunch of McMansions.”
And according to William Gray, a researcher based at Colorado State University, those hulking houses may face a battering this year.
In an updated forecast released Thursday, he predicted a 74 percent chance of a major hurricane hitting the U.S. coast in the season that begins Friday. He foresees 17 named storms and nine hurricanes, five of them intense.
So, where’s the next New Orleans? Pick a place on the coast, and there’s a worst-case scenario. The calamities they face are less about Mother Nature’s caprices than they are about the human variety.
“If we really want to stop hurricane losses, we really have to slow down the kind of growth that’s happening along the coast,” says Jay Baker, a geography professor at Florida State University, “rather than worrying about how many hurricanes are going to come.”
On the lawn of the local library, a family of four flees in horror, looking over their shoulders as bronze waves lick at their heels. Beneath their feet, houses and humans tumble in the torrent as palms snap and telephone poles topple.
The statue is a memorial to a hurricane that struck in September 1928, overwhelming a small muck dike on Lake Okeechobee and killing as many as 3,000 people.
Almost 80 years later, the people of this area are looking over their shoulders once again.
A report issued last year said the 35-foot-high, 143-mile Herbert Hoover Dike, built to prevent a repeat of 1928, has nearly failed several times in the past decade. The authors called the dike “a grave and imminent danger” to human life; they put the probability of breach by 2010 at 50-50 without major rehabilitation.
That could mean 1.6 trillion gallons of polluted water from the nation’s second-largest freshwater lake spilling out on a lakeside population of 45,000 — many of them poor blacks and Hispanics with few resources to escape.
Federal officials initially downplayed this scenario, but more recently they have taken steps to prepare for it — and prevent it.
Under a FEMA contract, consultant Innovative Emergency Management has asked officials in counties along the lake to measure their disaster plans against the possibility of a Category 5 storm making landfall just north of Fort Lauderdale, heading west over the lake.
Early estimates put most of South Florida under 1 to 4 feet of water or more for up to 22 days, says IEM’s Wayne C. Thomas. A million people are homeless; 4 million are without power.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers normally has $12 million a year to mow the dike and maintain its locks, dams and eight recreation areas. But it has spent $50 million in recent months to fill in a “toe ditch” to better control seepage through the dike’s base.
Along the dike’s most troublesome southern end, the Corps has stockpiled 45,000 tons of “armor” stone, 415,000 small sandbags and 1,000 of the 4,000-pound bags famously airlifted into the breaches of the New Orleans levees after Katrina, says Jim Jeffords, chief of operations in the Jacksonville office.
Jeffords says problems don’t generally appear until the lake reaches around 161/2 feet; drought has dropped levels to around 9 feet.
But Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, cautions that back-to-back storms — think 2004, with Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan — could fill it up again. Two seasons ago, waves generated by Wilma carved huge chunks from the dike and sent water, and water moccasins, cascading into Belle Glade.
Wehle thinks the Corps needs to spend as much as $125 million a year for the next five or six years to rehab the dike.
Each hurricane season, “it’s basically rolling the dice with Mother Nature and hoping to avoid the worst that could happen,” says Leslie Bromwell, a co-author of last year’s dire report. “That big storm is out there somewhere. Some day, some year it’s going to happen.”
There’s only one way off the island; the nation’s fourth-largest city blocks the path to safety.
The people of Galveston are well aware of the peril lurking just off the tepid brown waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricanes define the island’s timeline. The Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States — killing more than 8,000 people and washing away half the city’s homes — and Hurricanes Carla (1961) and Alicia (1983) also wreaked havoc.
Hurricane Rita barreled toward the island in 2005 as the most intense hurricane ever measured in the Gulf. The ensuing evacuation was a debacle, leaving tens of thousands of motorists trapped for hours on scorching ribbons of highway.
Rita veered east; disaster was averted. And state and local officials promise they learned their lesson, that next time, they will better coordinate the evacuation of more than 300,000 residents of Galveston and Southeast Houston.
And if they’re wrong?
“We’re dead in the water,” says county emergency management coordinator John Simsen.
Galveston is about 10 feet above sea level, protected on the south side by an 18-foot seawall that, because of beach erosion, would likely be inundated by even a Category 3 hurricane. With no barrier islands or coastal marshes to protect it, most of Galveston would be submerged by a Category 5 hurricane.
Houston, about 40 miles northwest of Galveston, is only about 50 feet above sea level and is crisscrossed by wide bayous that pour into Galveston Bay and the Gulf. The city is notoriously flood-prone, with some sections of interstate becoming impassable in heavy thunderstorms.
A major storm striking Galveston head-on or to the west would push enormous amounts of Gulf water into Galveston Bay. The ensuing surge would flood one of the busiest petrochemical regions in the country and cut off the low-lying highways that would become escape routes.
A swamped Galveston Bay could back up through Houston’s bayous, pushing water over the banks into thousands of neighborhoods and downtown.
Emergency officials say the next evacuation will rely on a better-prepared citizenry, staged evacuations and highway reversals to move hundreds of thousands of vehicles along a freeway that is chronically congested and flood-prone under normal conditions. They also hope to move hundreds of thousands of Houstonians off the roads to clear the way for those who need to evacuate earlier.
This time, the evacuation will be ordered in four stages by ZIP code, with those living on Galveston Island itself being ordered inland as much as 36 hours before tropical force winds are expected to come ashore.
“We know that we live on the Texas Gulf Coast, and we know that sooner or later, a hurricane is going to come our way,” says Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the chief executive in the county surrounding Houston.
“We know that hurricanes are scary deals, particularly if you have family members that are unnerved by it. But one of our main messages is going to be, please, if you are not in a mandatory evacuation situation, do not get on the roads and highways and clog them up.”
New York City
Life in New York comes with inescapable urban pitfalls: crowded subways, spiraling rents, never-ending traffic.
And, once a century or so, a hurricane.
While local weather concerns run more to snowstorms than tropical storms, the nation’s largest city is about due for a major hurricane. Think 130-mph winds and a 30-foot storm surge, with flooding that could turn City Hall into a lone building perched above an immersed lower Manhattan.
The storm threatens to inflict more than $100 billion in economic losses while forcing the evacuation of 3 million people — more than six times the population of pre-Katrina New Orleans.
The last major New York-area hurricane was the Long Island Express of 1938, which caused 700 deaths along the Eastern seaboard.
Historically, the city endures a hurricane roughly once every 90 years. Inevitably, another will hit — and, says Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College and one of the nation’s foremost hurricane experts, “that has the potential for catastrophic effects.”
New York City is most at risk between August and October. The 1938 hurricane, which hit in September, came ashore on Long Island about 75 miles from the city.
A similar blast in 2007 would result in total economic losses of more than $100 billion — and that’s not even a worst-case scenario, according to projections by AIR Worldwide Corp., a Boston-based firm specializing in risk management for natural catastrophes.
A Category 3 hurricane in New York would behave like a Category 4 in the South, for several reasons. A Northern hurricane typically travels at 34 mph, about triple the speed of a Southern storm.
And the city is particularly vulnerable because of its location at a bend between the Long Island and New Jersey coastlines, sitting at a right angle to incoming storms.
A major hurricane would produce a storm surge of up to 30 feet, with flooding in all five boroughs, airport and highway closings, and inevitable traffic jams. The lower Manhattan flood zone for a hurricane making landfall just south of the city includes the World Trade Center site, Wall Street and police headquarters.
City Hall — which sits on higher ground and is located toward the middle of the island — might turn into a small island as the East and Hudson rivers converge to its south. If that sounds implausible, it has happened before: A September 1821 hurricane raised the tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded Manhattan from its southern tip to Canal Street.
Today, that would knock out most of Wall Street and assorted subway lines, while flooding tourist attractions like the South Street Seaport. The city’s biggest beaches in the Rockaways and Coney Island would temporarily disappear as the Atlantic Ocean came inland.
Last year, the city unveiled its new hurricane plan — evacuating 3 million people, while providing shelter for more than 600,000 others. Officials at the Office of Emergency Management estimated the preparedness costs at up to $30 million.
But part of the preparedness problem is convincing New Yorkers that hurricanes are on the list of big-city worries.
“People often ask me, ‘What’s the most dangerous thing about a hurricane hitting New York?’ ” Coch says. “And I say, ‘The New Yorker.’ People have fixed in minds that hurricanes happen on palm-fringed coast. But you cannot deny history.”
The Outer Banks
For more than 200 years, the nation’s tallest lighthouse has guided sailors through the “graveyard of the Atlantic” — the shallow shores of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But not even the towering Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is safe from the merciless grind of the ocean’s waves.
The lighthouse has been relocated twice, and will have to be moved again as the sands that make up the 130-mile string of barrier islands — which reach out into the ocean like few others in the world — slowly shift in the surf. It might take 100 years, but scientists say it’s a geologic inevitability.
Or it could happen overnight — if a major hurricane strikes.
“If we had a Katrina-sized storm, 75 percent of these islands could be gone,” says Stan Riggs, a geologist at East Carolina University who has studied the Outer Banks for four decades. “You can count on it cleaning the clock.”
Though only about 35,000 people live permanently on the Outer Banks, each year some 5 million visit the islands. In the place where the Wright brothers first took to skies, they spend the summer in vacation and rental homes — some with a dozen bedrooms, private pools and elevators — that have a tax-assessed value of about $27 billion.
But Riggs and other scientists fear the right hurricane — an especially powerful storm packing a deep surge — could drown the islands with sea water, smash buildings with 25-foot waves and force map makers to redraw the state’s signature coastline.
Riggs said such a storm would break the chain of long, narrow islands into a perforated series of many smaller spots of sand.
Yet North Carolina’s Division of Emergency Management estimates that, even if a Category 5 hurricane turns toward the Outer Banks, several hundred defiant homeowners will try to ride the storm.
Many will die as the storm destroys structures across the islands and carves several new inlets where land now stands up from the sea, said Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University.
Where tourists tanned in South Beach? Underwater.
The pastel-colored facades of Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive are battered. Downtown, several feet of water surround the Miami Heat’s arena and new performing arts center. Along the coast, thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed.
That’s what happens in Miami’s doomsday scenario: a Category 5 hurricane moving northwest over the city. Unlikely? Maybe. Impossible? No.
Miami is vulnerable.
The city is on the water. Expensive homes and condos line its coast and barrier islands. Geographically it is flat, with no hills to stop a storm surge.
Add to that a large number of retirees who have medical needs, vacationers inexperienced with hurricanes and many people living in poverty. Then try to get them out of harm’s way with only two major roads going directly north.
Most importantly, Miami is vulnerable because this region sees an unparalleled frequency and intensity of storms.
“We live in paradise, but it has its perils,” says Stephen Leatherman, the director of Florida International University’s hurricane research center.
Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, hit hardest just south of the area in 1992, destroying much of Homestead and causing billions of dollars in damage. A 1926 Category 4 storm hit the then-infant city directly and “turned the playground of America into the playground of the elements,” according to a contemporary newspaper account.
That storm mirrors today’s computer-generated worst-case scenarios. When the storm hit, the barrier island off South Florida’s coast completely flooded over so that the “ocean extended to Miami,” 31/2 miles across Biscayne Bay, according to weather bureau records.
Hotels and homes along the bay were inundated with water three to five feet deep. Streets were buried with sand. Close to 5,000 homes were destroyed and 9,000 damaged from Fort Lauderdale to Miami.
When the waters receded, boats of all sizes were strewn along the coastline.
Since the 1926 hurricane and especially since Andrew, the area has examined its weaknesses. Emergency managers regularly run simulations and drills, and building codes are strict, though structures aren’t engineered to withstand a Category 5 storm.
“I look at the windows in some of the high rises, and I wonder if they’re going to have trouble even in a Category 3 hurricane,” says engineer Herbert Saffir, the co-creator of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, which rates the intensity of storms from Category 1 to 5.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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