By Lindsay Christ and Phil Spadanuta
Mammoth waves engulf entire neighborhoods, washing away roads and homes. Devastating winds and pounding rain wreak havoc, maximizing the destruction. Left in the storm’s wake are billions in damages and an immeasurable loss of life.
It’s a horrific scenario, but one that is a very real possibility. Though Long Island has remained, for the most part, unscathed throughout this year’s hurricane season, experts warn we’re not out of the woods yet. According to the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center, the Atlantic hurricane season lasts until November 30—and peaks from mid-August to late October—meaning, we’re in the middle of its most historically ferocious period.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen tells the Press it’s not a matter of if, but when another storm will strike. Exactly how soon, however, remains a mystery.
“Eventually the Northeast, including Long Island, will get another hurricane—it’s just a matter of time,” explains Feltgen. “Once a storm has formed we will know where it might hit, before a storm is formed we know nothing.”
The Island’s most devastating hurricane, the Long Island Express, slammed LI on Sept. 21, 1938, killing 700 to 800 people along its path through New England and causing about $360 million in damages, which equates to $4.7 billion today.
The last major hurricane to hit LI was Hurricane Gloria, on Sept. 27, 1985. Gloria struck with winds of up to 95 to 100 mph, with gusts reaching 115 mph. Many Long Islanders lost electrical power for several days. Yet Gloria hit during a below-average hurricane season, such as the current season.
Since Gloria, the world has experienced dramatic weather changes that would intensify a hurricane’s impact, explain weather experts. Meteorologist Mike Jensen at the Brookhaven National Lab says a global rise in sea level now presents a greater threat to coastal communities in the event of any storm.
Some emergency response officials also worry the Island is even more vulnerable due to its positioning. “The fact that Long Island is on a 90-degree angle [to the ocean] doesn’t help us,” explains Nassau County Red Cross spokesman Sam Kille. “The problem is that the continental shelf off of Long Island’s Atlantic coast doesn’t let water back out as quickly as in other areas, which contributes to beach erosion.”
“Hurricanes and tropical storms typically move northward when they reach the Eastern Seaboard,” adds Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College. “That means that the strongest storm surge will be on the eastern side and moving northward with the combined speed of the winds and the storm movement. LI would be facing this storm surge in a perpendicular fashion, which means that the water has no place to go but up onto the Island.”
Communities along LI’s southeast shoreline are most at risk. A study by the International Hurricane Research Center listed the East End as No. 8 on a list of the top 10 most vulnerable U.S. mainland areas to hurricanes. All South Shore communities would be in danger—according to the Red Cross, in the event of a major hurricane, everyone south of Sunrise Highway would most likely be evacuated.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Peter Wichrowski says the North Shore wouldn’t necessarily escape a hurricane’s fury, either. “The North Shore can expect flooding due to the land structure of the Long Island Sound,” he explains. “Strong northeast winds will cause water to get washed into the Sound. This water cannot drain out of the Long Island Sound during low tide.”
Experts and emergency officials caution residents not to fall into a comfort zone and ignore hurricane season. They suggest preparation: emergency kits with flashlights, radios, extra batteries, a few changes of clothes, a sufficient amount of cash and important documents. They also recommend establishing emergency contacts, either through the Red Cross’ online database, at disastersafe.redcross.org/default.aspx, or directly with family members.
“The important thing we want to express to people is that it only takes one hurricane to do enough damage to someone’s home and their life,” says Kille.