It Can’t Happen Here

Lately I’ve seen a lot of ink and bits spilled about whether to move New Orleans.  NOLA is unique, because it is mostly below sea level. It is also part of an industrial corridor sometimes called the American Ruhr.  And it is the port for a third of the U.S.  And the whole levee system is an artificial attempt to contain a river that naturally changes course every so often.  All those points are worth separate discussion.

But here I’d like to address the underlying assumption of many people who suggest moving New Orleans: that it can’t happen here, here being wherever the writer is.

Let me pick on Boston.  Everyone knows that Boston never gets serious hurricanes, right? Yet downtown Boston is surrounded on three sides by water and has a typical elevation of about 20 feet.  Boston’s Back Bay is built on landfill about that high above the Charles River, and might subside if flooded. Then there’s the Big Dig, which undermines numerous buildings; what would it do if completely flooded? Plus Bostonians aren’t used to preparing for hurricanes.

The Great Colonial Hurricane

Yet it can happen here.  It has, in August 1636, with with 20 foot ocean surge.

According to Governor Bradford:

such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indian ever saw. …It blew down sundry houses and uncovered others. …It blew down many hundred thousands of trees turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle.

Other lesser storms have hit New England at other times, specifically:

  • 1991: Bob
  • 1954: Carol and Edna 10 days apart
  • 1938: The Great New England Hurricane
  • 1815: The Gale

The Great New England Hurricane

About the 1938 storm, the Associated Press wrote:

The greens and commons of New England will never be the same. Picture postcard mementos of the oldest part of the United States are gone with the wind and flood. The day of the ‘biggest wind’ has just passed, and a great part of the most picturesque America, as old as the Pilgrims, has gone beyond recall or replacement…

On the shore 120 mph winds were recorded, and Harvard’s Blue Hills Observatory recorded one gust to 186 mph. The storm surge was 12 to 15 feet high. Those numbers make it a cat 3 hurricane.

According to historian Carolyn Egan in her article "The Great Unnamed Hurricane of 1938 In Southern New England," the storm "caused 564 deaths and over 1700 injuries. Nearly 9000 homes and businesses were destroyed with over 15,000 damaged. The boating community was equally devastated with 2600 boats destroyed and 3300 damaged."
When hurricanes hit Dot: ‘Such a mighty storm of wind and rain’ By Peter F. Stevens Dorchester Reporter September 8, 2005

The Long Island Express

That 1938 hurricane was also known as the Long Island Express, because it first hit Long Island.

By Wednesday afternoon, shingles were flying from roofs on Long Island. The sky grew dark. Trees were uprooted and telephone poles snapped like matchsticks. Three hours before high tide, residents reported a thick bank of gray fog, twenty-five to forty feet above the water, rolling in toward the south-facing coast.

Some residents fled to relative safety across the bridge. Many did not. Most of them died as the "fog bank" turned out to be a wall of water known as a storm surge.

The 1938 hurricane was a cat 5 at its peak out in the Atlantic, and apparently about a cat 3 when it made landfall.

There, in the right-side eyewall, the counterclockwise winds combined with the storm’s forward speed to create gusts exceeding 200 mph.

The eye of the hurricane passed some 55 miles east of Manhattan, a near miss in meteorological terms. Had it been a few miles west of Manhattan, forensic hurricanologists agree it would have devastated the island.

Over a four-day period, the 1938 storm dropped an average of 11 inches of rain over a 10,000-square-mile area, according to the National Weather Service. Flooding inflicted major damage through Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont, causing more than $300 million in losses.

In all, 600 people died. Ten of those deaths were in New York City. Flooding knocked out electrical power in all areas above 59th Street in Manhattan and in all of the Bronx. A hundred large trees in Central Park were destroyed.
History Reveals Hurricane Threat to New York City By Robert Roy Britt LiveScience Senior Writer posted: 01 June 2005 06:47 am ET

Imagine the effects such a hurricane would have today, with Long Island even more populated and the barrier dunes even more worn down. Remember all those pictures of hotels in New Orleans with windows completely blown out? Now think of Manhattan. And think of trying to evacuate everyone from Long Island and Boston with maybe 24 hours notice.

Sure, there hasn’t been a storm like that to hit Long Island or Boston since then. But New Orleans hadn’t been flooded since before 1938, either.