Half of Long Island who lost power after Irene saw red amid the week-long post-storm blackouts last month while the other half who suffered no damage scoffed at the hurricane-turned tropical storm, but experts warn that all should beware because the Island is still overdue for a catastrophic Storm of the Century.
Hurricane Irene may go down in the record books as one of the top 10 costliest disasters in U.S. history after it ravaged the Eastern Seaboard, causing up to $10 billion in estimated damages and claiming at least 45 lives in 11 states—including a windsurfer in Bellport Bay. The Long Island Power Authority has put the tab at $176 million for restoring power to more than 523,000 of their 1.1 million customers and New York City estimated the storm cost $55 million. But the full cost to homeowners, businesses and municipalities in Nassau and Suffolk counties is still being tallied.
While the cleanup continues, meteorologists gathered recently at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage to recap the lessons learned from the biggest tropical cyclone to hit LI in 26 years. Their verdict: Irene was bad, but she was a sun shower compared to The Big One the Island is ripe for.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Ross Dickman, program manager for the National Weather Service’s eastern regional office, said at the Sept. 17 Long Island Hurricane Symposium.
Atlantic Hurricane Season—June 1 to Nov. 30—peaks Sept. 10, but Dickman noted that a second, smaller spike in hurricane season is right around the corner in the second week in October. Historically, most—but not all—hurricanes in October are destined for Florida, where waters are still warm enough for a big storm to gain strength.
Some of LI’s most memorable storms hit in late September. Gloria, a category 1 hurricane, struck Sept. 27, 1985. The Long Island Express, the benchmark category 3 hurricane with winds of more than 120 mph, rolled ashore Sept. 21, 1938.
Irene peaked as a category 3 with 120 mph winds but weakened into a category 1 before it first hit North Carolina, then New Jersey and was downgraded to a tropical storm shortly before the eye arrived Aug. 28 over Coney Island.
“This was kind of like spring training for a really big storm,” said Bill Korbel, a News12 Long Island weatherman who was also at the symposium. But much like the levee-crushing storm surge of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it wasn’t the wind but the historic inland river flooding in upstate New York, New Jersey and Vermont that did the most damage.
Irene easily uprooted thousands of trees while the ground was already saturated from record August rainfall, which made knocking down power lines easier. LIPA contracted crews from out of state to help get the lights back on for the half-million homes and businesses, but criticism of the utility’s repair time proved to be an ’80s rerun. Local lawmakers said the utility failed the Island; LIPA officials said their response was “on par.”
Gloria caused more than 750,000 power outages and took more than a week to repair while the utility’s then-CEO was on a European vacation at the time, according to published reports at the time. The statewide cost of the storm was estimated at $285 million, mostly on LI.
The Express claimed about 50 lives on LI, and about 700 died in total after the storm ripped through New England. It washed away 150 houses on Fire Island, 153 houses on Westhampton Beach and caused about 63,000 Long Islanders to lose their homes. Adjusted for inflation, it cost more than $41 billion, ranking it the sixth costliest in the nation.
Experts note that modernity both works for and against LI when the next Express hits. In ’38, there were no satellites and weather prediction, which nowadays makes forecasts far more accurate. But there were also far less people living in flood zones 73 years ago.
What’s more, the Express unexpectedly barreled through the Island at more than 50 mph-about twice the forward velocity for a typical hurricane, further adding to the surprise. Irene chugged up the coast at about 20 mph. That allowed even more time to get out of her way while the 65 million people in 13 affected states tracked her progress on live TV—until the power went out, anyway.
The National Hurricane Center in Florida notes that more than two thirds of the costliest hurricanes on record occurred in the past 25 years. Regardless of how much preparedness mitigates fatalities, the coastal population explosion means costs of such storms will only rise.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will have an idea of how much the damage from Irene will cost LI after the Oct. 31 deadline for filing for disaster assistance. Three FEMA disaster centers in Uniondale, Hauppauge and Riverhead close 8 p.m. Saturday.