Sunday, October 28, 2012

Waiting for Sandy

Sunday evening, October 28th

Sandy is again a hurricane. Having already once been downgraded into a tropical storm, Sandy is back as Category 1 hurricane—and it’s heading north along the Atlantic coast. The storm system is slow-moving and massive, ranging some 1,200 km across. The eye is still far out on the Atlantic off the Carolina coast some 800 km from New York, but despite the distance, the winds are picking up even here in Brooklyn. The rain is starting to fall and the Rockaway shore is already getting soaked. The hurricane is calculated to make landfall well south of New York tomorrow night and is expected to pass the metropolitan area south-southwest from here across the garden state of New Jersey.

Although New York will likely not be hit directly, the expectation is that the city will receive its share of rain and wind. In fact, the biggest threats would appear to stem from wind and the associated storm surge. The rainfall on Monday-Tuesday is expected to be just 50-120 mm—enough to give us a good washing, but not huge in historical terms. However, by noon tomorrow, the winds are expected to blow at 80 km per hour, with gusts going up to 112 km per hour. That’s strong enough to fell trees and power lines and to throw leisure boats off the East River on the banks.

This afternoon we walked down from our house to Bedford Avenue and the main shopping area of Williamsburg to get supplies so that our daughter Nowa would be able to ride out her first hurricane in comfort. It should have been no surprise, but we were still taken aback at seeing how many others had had the same idea. There were crowds of people in all shops and at least three dozen people were queuing on the pavement outside our favourite supermarket. Two bouncers were admitting people in an orderly manner, so that inside the store things didn’t get too chaotic. After a brief wait we were able to stock up with enough of bottled water and cooking ingredients should we be unable to shop for a few days.  It is interesting to note the types of items that people buy in these kinds of situations. Apart from bottled water, the first things to go seem to include canned tuna. This I noticed 14 months ago when we were bracing for Hurricane Irene, and could reconfirm today. As we headed back home, we could feel the humidity condensing in the cool wind.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been visible in the media today assuring people of the state of preparedness. All public transportation—subway, local trains, buses, ferries—will be shutting down tonight. The area airports—JFK, La Guardia and Newark—have also instructed flights to be directed elsewhere and  Amtrak trains will be avoiding New York’s Penn Station. The bridges and tunnels connecting the five Boroughs may be closed up to avoid accidents caused by heavy winds or flooding. New York will be cut off from the world.

The decisive Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered mandatory evacuation of all vulnerable low-lying areas on the coastline by 7 pm tonight. Zone A—which includes most of the shores of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island—may be facing huge storm surges. The forecast at this time is mostly 1-2 m above normal—high in its own right—but some areas around East and Hudson Rivers—and especially Long Island Sound—may face a storm surge of up to 1.8-3.3 metres. It’s almost full moon, which worsens the effects as the tides are naturally high at this time.

While the city hurricane shelters are slowly filling up, many citizens are also planning on challenging the evacuation orders and riding out the storm. The local TV station NY1 sometime ago broadcast a report from the Rockaways where some of the 130,000 people living there were gathering for hurricane parties. A somewhat wobbly gentleman declared firmly through a nearly toothless grin that he would not leave his home of 35 years: “The captain must go down with his ship!” True to his style, Mayor Bloomberg justifies the mandatory evacuations, not because of his concern for the stubborn residents, but because their intransigence may eventually put rescue personnel at risk if they need to go out to salvage foolhardy partyers from storm hit areas. He also made a decision to shut down elevators and hot water in public housing—many tall high-rises—to prevent people from getting stuck in elevators and other mishaps if and when there are power failures.

This is not the first time New York City will experience a hurricane, although they certainly are not regular events. By definition, hurricanes are tropical storms, and New York is far from tropical, as anyone having spent a winter here would attest. However, just last year, in August 2011, the city was hit by another hurricane, Irene. It was the first since Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The one before that had been Agnes in 1972. Whether this repeat just a year later would be any indication of intensified storm activity linked with climate change is of course impossible to tell. Two events in a row don’t provide any statistically significant trend. The most destructive hurricane that New York has had to deal with in modern times took place in 1938 when the eye of a Category 3 storm passed straight through Long Island killing ten people. Damage from Irene last year stayed quite limited, although much of Lower Manhattan—the Financial District and the Battery—were severely flooded. Even then, the Far Rockaways took the brunt of the storm that damaged the piers and boardwalks there. Here in Williamsburg, the visible damage was limited to some flooded basements and a few felled trees (see the photos from the aftermath of Irene).
Sandy is different, though. It’s been termed ‘storm of a generation’ to reach this far up on the East Coast. Last week, it already killed at least 60 people and caused large-scale homelessness in the Caribbean. President Barack Obama has just signed an emergency declaration for New York State in anticipation of Sandy’s arrival.

For now, we are tucked in comfortably in our apartment in Williamsburg. We are close to East River, but just outside of Zone A by virtue of our building standing on a small knoll. It will not prevent the winds from rocking the windows here on the 4th floor or preventing flooding in the basement storage areas. But all the plants have been moved inside from the balconies. We expect to stay safe and dry, although the thick clouds hide the full moon and the wind is increasingly throwing raindrops our way..

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