SUDDEN SEA -------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org firstname.lastname@example.org 2006 February 1
[This article was writtten before the NYSkies ewbsite was established. It is edited to remove typos. Otherwise it is the original text]
Introduction ---------- In the past many months the Science, Industry, Business Library,, Manhattan, presented several talks about natural disasters. These were potential ones like the Vesuvius volcano, and actual ones, like the Indian Ocean tsunami. On 31 January 2006 Ms Scotti presented 'Sudden Sea' about the hurricane of 1938. She had her book, of the same title, on hand for sale and signing. This hurricane was among the worst natural disasters in American history. It exploited speed and surprise as it walloped Long Island and New England on 1938 September 21. Many in the audience either were in the hurricane directly or knew people who were. These added many fascinating tales to that elaborated by Ms Scotti.
Hurricane tracking ---------------- In the prewar years hurricanes were treated as a peculiarly southern US concern, with the vulnerable zone reaching from New Orleans to the North Carolina coast. Very few hurricanes made it farther north to New York or Long Island. If they did they were by then weakened to no worse than ordinary winter storms. There was only one station monitoring hurricanes, in Jacksonville, Florida, crewed by only two men from the Weather Bureau. They relied on radio reports from ships in the middle and equatorial regions of the Atlantic Ocean and hand plotted the hurricanes on paper maps. For hurricanes remote from land, ships were the only eyes and ears for reporting them. Aviation still offered too little traffic to be effective in monitoring the storms. The entire emphasis was on protecting the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to Florida and the Gulf coast. There was simply no motive to extend hurricane watches farther north. There were in place evacuation and recovery programs for the affected coastline, mostly under local or state jurisdiction. No national or federal disaster assistance was established. Hurricanes were not named then and went into the record books only by the year. Small hurricanes causing only 'normal' damage were generally treated as aggravated autumn storms.
Path of hurricane 1938 -------------------- Hurricane 1938 started in the Cape Verde Islands area of the Atlantic Ocean, where most hurricanes are born. It was quickly recognized as a major cyclone by September 16th and monitored. It headed westward on a familiar path toward the southern United States and Caribbean islands. It grew in strength from the late summer heated air and water, All activity was passive being that the theory and modeling of hurricanes in the 1930s was pretty crude. Reports from sea vessels caused alarm enough to send up hurricane warnings for southern Florida. relief and rescue crews were moved into Dade and other south Florida counties. Coastal towns, including Miami, were boarded up as was standard procedure for an approaching hurricane. The storm was a full-blown hurricane, what we today would class as category 5, on September 19th when it was about to hit land on September 19th. Suddenly, it stopped for an hour or so, then slapped north. It never touched Florida except for some heavy rain of no great harm. It speeded north at about the fastest a hurricane was then and now clocked, averaging 100 to 120 kilometer per hour. In context, this is about the very fastest a car or train of 1938 can move! Due to the shape of the US Atlantic coast, hurricane 1938 missed all land from Florida to Delaware. It passed Cape Hatteras about 400 kilometers off shore. Once it moved beyond the heavily-trafficked sealanes of Florida there were only scattered reports of its progress until very near the New Jersey-New York sealanes. On September 20th winds picked up on the New Jersey and Long Island coasts to put up small-craft warnings. Nothing was mentioned, or known, about a gigantic hurricane on the way. In the northern states there was no established hurricane watch or emergency response system. Storms previous to 1938 were localized, caused damage that allowed quick recovery.
The landfall ---------- Hurricanes typicly use three weapons for their destruction: wind, rain, wave. In addition, hurricane 1938 used speed -- 100KPH forward motion -- and surprise -- there was no warning or preparation. The bulk of damage was caused by the storm surge, walls of ocean water that piled up before the wind to heights of several meters. The waves hit Long Island in mid afternoon on the 21st of September. This storm wave was superimposed on the normal high tide that occurred at the same time. With Long Island being a sea level territory, these waves penetrated far inland, clear across the island to the glacial moraine. People were caught in their foot steps with no defense. The human toll was about 250 on Long Island, 400 in Rhode Island, and 50 in other parts of New England. The majority of deaths were from collapsing structures or drowning. Property damage was widespread, given the light construction of seashore buildings. Power, telephone, telegraph, roads, rails were severed, preventing easily communication to other parts of the country. The storm wave was so fast and sudden when it slammed onto land that it jiggled seismometers around the world as a small earthquake! The hurricane struck in the middle of Long Island, missing New York City. The western arms of the cyclone brushed the City with heavy rain and high seas. Subways, underpasses, cellars, utility chambers, sewers, were flooded. Toppled trees and light structural damage was reported all over the City. Skyscrapers swayed a meter off plumb at their tops. At first, the weather was called a stronger-than-usual wind-rain storm, not a colossal hurricane. That was the result of interrupted news from the Island and New England.
Path in New England ----------------- After crossing Long Island and moving into upland of New England, hurricane 1938 lost its power source of heated ocean. It, like any other hurricane faded. It continued north into Vermont, Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, Quebec. There a little north of Montreal it died out as a vigorous autumn rain-wind event. That's why it is a gross worry if a hurricane after a landfall moves back over the sea. It can regain strength and strike with renewed vigor at another landfall. Even today we can not with nay confidence predict the future path of a hurricane until the final 24 hours at best. By then the die is cast for the target areas and defenses better be ready by then. There is always the risk of ringing th alarm for too wide an area, due to the error fan of the hurricane's future path. Preparing for a hurricane is very costly in dollars, human resources, equipment, material. The agony of an emergency response agency is to apply the resources judiciously, yet adequately, to cover the reasonably expected target area.
Some geography ------------ If you study a US map, you'll notice that the Atlantic coast is strongly aligned north-south with only gentle excursions east-west. A hurricane track would parallel this coast on its usual coast-hugging path. Look closely at New York. Long Island juts straight east-west, as if to dare a hurricane to smack it head on. The island is some 150 kilometers long, presenting a large target for hurricanes on a north heading. If it misses Long Island for being too far east, it has a second large target, the Rhode Island, southeast Massachusetts coast. This includes Hyannis, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket. All these targets are low-lying zones with elevations of mere meters above sea level. The only obstruction is the glacial moraine of Long Island, which is a few tens of meters in elevation at most. Hence, a hurricane can inflict its damage over a vast geographic area, not only along the very sea coast. Long Island as a whole is a protective barrier for Connecticut, separated from there by Long Island Sound. Rhode Island and southeast Massachusetts extend beyond the east end of Long Island and front the sea, and Hurricane, with no barrier to protect them. Rhode Island has an other strike against it. It is made of dozens of islands in Narragansett Bay. A major storm that jives the Bay can devastate the state. The soil in all the targets is mostly alluvial left by the glaciers in the last ice-age. The Library had a talk earlier in 2005 'The ice age stopped here' that discussed the shaping of the New York region by glaciers. Such loose soil is easily shifted by moving water, carrying structures built on it.
Geographic changes ---------------- Hurricane 1938 cut the neck that delimits the Hamptons from 'up- island'. This is now the Shinnecock Canal. The breach was canalized as a 'bonus' of the hurricane to facilitate boat traffic between the ocean and Peconic Bay. It has locks to step boats between the different tide levels on each end. The storm also cut the Moriches, forming the inlet of today. This as stabilized but not canalized, to pass boats between the ocean and Great South Bay without having to sail tens of kilometers around Fire Island. Immense volumes of sand were shoved around on the barrier islands, Montauk and Buzzard's Bay. In the one day of the tempest, the landscape altered as much as it did before in several decades. By now, almost 70 years later, the coastline by normal natural evolution pretty much erased the marks of the hurricane.
Some physics ---------- Ms Scotti didn't quite explain why hurricane 1938 was so devastating on eastern Long Island and eastern New England, and comparatively mild on the western sides. First, recall that in the northern hemisphere a cyclone rotates counterclockwise. As air falls into the low pressure eye of the storm, it, by Coriolis effect, spirals inward. The very center of the hurricane, the eye, is devoid of storm by centrifugal effect. It is a region a few dozen kilometers diameter of calm still, even sunny, weather. For a storm at rest on the ground, the wind speed on the west flank is the same as that on the east. The wind directions are opposite. The west side wind heads south; east, north. As the hurricane procedes north, its ground speed is added to the circular speed of its winds. On the east flank, the speeds are both north, so they add to increase the wind speed seen by the ground. Hurricane 1938 was racing at some 100KPH, so whatever was the circular wind speed, the ground on the east side of the eye felt that plus an additional 100KPH. On the west side, near New York City, the hurricane speed is still north but now it opposes the southward circular wind. Whatever it was, it was felt by th ground as being 100KPH less. given that the City suffered storm levels of wind anyway, it's anyone's guess what happened on the east side. There are no reliable wind speed measures from the affected areas. For us in the City, if the eye passes to our east, over Long Island, we get the lesser harm from wind. Should the eye pass us on the west, over New Jersey, we are whumped with extra strength wind.
News movie -------- A short movie was made of the hurricane in the style of a news film with the crisp narration and dramatic scenes. Ms Scotti showed it; it's on view at the Library. It presented the storm as the greatest natural disaster in American history. Scotti keeps this honor in her own book 'Sudden Sea', at sale after her talk. The Library handed out a resource guide for the Hurricane that included many books, newspaper articles, and the movie.
Recovery ------ In spite of the lack of dedicated services to recover from hurricanes, the affected region sprang back remarkably quickly. 1938 was still feeling the Depression. There was in place civilian armies under the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. These were already busy in civic works, like finishing the IND Sixth Avenue subway and the Hayden Planetarium. Being in a paramilitary service, they were ordered to rebuild the damaged areas after the hurricane. Because the regions were on the sea coast, the normal coast and harbor departments of towns and states were called up for rescue and relief. It was, however, up to the individual jurisdictions. Insurance, such as there was any, covered only a minor part of the losses. There were many technical rejections of claims, plus stonewalling by the insurance companies. The days following hurricane 1938 were sunny autumn days, aiding and comforting the recovery work. In time, about when World War II started for the United States, most life returned to normal.
Hurricane study ------------- It took World War II to kick the United States into thinking seriously about hurricanes. With increased shipping in the Atlantic, the need for military advantage thru weather, and newly expanded air traffic, hurricane study became an integral part of the war effort. Monitoring stations were set up at several places on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, some used also to monitor enemy submarines and ships. Our present tracking of hurricanes evolved from the wartime program. Eventually the range of territory vulnerable to hurricanes was expanded to the full Atlantic coast, including the City.
Greatest natural disaster? ------------------------ This hurricane has been called the greatest natural disaster in American history. So have many other storms, floods, earthquakes, fires, volcanos. How are disasters ranked? There is no uniform method for assessing the magnitude of a disaster. While a one incident may cause more effect under one factor, others may excede it for different factors. With no consistency in documenting natural disasters and no way to combine the various losses into a single figure-of-merit, it's largely a numbers game to claim title as 'greatest natural disaster'. However, as a local incident, hurricane 1938 is quite likely the largest single natural calamity suffered by Long Island and southern New England. There were earthquakes and other huge storms long before the instant one, the population and development of this region was orders lower than in 1938. Hence, the accountable damage was far less for those earlier episodes.
A giant hurricane today --------------------- If such a hurricane hit this area again, the property loss would be orders greater, simply because of denser development now and the higher price levels. The one and same house that survived the 1938 storm, costing then $10,000, today could fetch some $500,000. This increase is due to the behavior of real estate market, not addition of facilities or improvements. This immense increase far surpasses what the general inflation would generate. That house in 1938 stood alone with hundreds of meters of open country around it. Today it's hemmed in by newer houses filling in that land. The combination of dense building and rising prices could equate a modest winter nor'easter's dollars of damage with that from the entire life of that 1938 hurricane! Human loss for a future storm of comparable strength and size as hurricane 1938 would be orders less. With warning and preparations now in place, people could remove to safer ground or to shelters well before the landfall. Altho both Long Island and Rhode Island with their confining geography are tricky to evacuate smoothly and rapidly, there seems to be no need to actually displace whole counties. Moving people from vulnerable structures to strong-rooms still within the target zone and provisioning them for the duration is the safer and saner strategy.
Comparison with Katrina --------------------- With hurricane Katrina still fresh in the mind of the audience, many questions related to that episode. Ms Scotti didn't study Katrina for her book, which was published in 2003 and focused on hurricane 1938. She did note that a dominant factor in New Orleans was that the town was built behind levees and pumps. The destruction came from storm waves and swollen rivers overtopping the levees and swamping the pumps. Lack of orderly evacuation left many people in the vulnerable parts of the town. After the hurricane passed, the water was trapped in New Orleans. It could not drain off naturally like in other coastal towns. The standing water complicated rescue and recovery. like impeding fire fighting. Being salt ocean water, it corroded utilities and fixtures and killed agriculture. It quickly became a health hazard from its unsanitary and putrid condition. Comparison of New York City with the Gulf coast for disaster preparation and relief is grossly unfair. Just from geography the two regions are hardly equal before a hurricane. This alone, forgetting about the social and institutional factors, means that a hurricane plan for the City has to be built on its own peculiar considerations and not be derived from a Gulf coast scheme.
My own comments ------------- I, of course, did not live thru hurricane 1938. I know several friends who did. I related one of their tales about salvaging an uprooted house. She lived on Long Island with ample land to place a second house. The hurricane tore off a bicycle shop in East Hampton and shoved it around the streets. It somehow stayed intact, possibly because it skidded bodily before the wind. She arranged to save the store, which itself closed business, and have the house moved to her property. There is stands today as her 'yellow' house, from the color of paint she applied to it. An other friend lived on Fire Island thru a normal winter storm. She built her house to be hurricane-proof as an A-fame with the sloping side facing the sea. Wind and storm waves would ride up the slope but not penetrate or crush the house. Down the beach from her was some rich guy's house. It was a drum with picture windows around the side. The thing rotated on a motorized hub so the man could see the ocean no matter what room he was in. One cold and stormy night, friend was in her house warming by her fireplace and reading some cold and stormy night novel. Outside she heard cracking gnashing noises from the storm. There was the round house, lights flickering, rattling on its hub! Suddenly, it ripped off of the hub, flipped on its side, and rolled into Great South Bay! The house didn't take kindly to such ersatz forces. It crumpled into a heap in the bay. New York hadn't suffered a great hurricane in over a century. Ms Scotti mentioned one in 1815. I hazard that weather records were so incomplete and scratchy that the storm could be misinterpreted. In any case, it seems to me that New York and vicinity actually takes as much damage over timescale of a century as that from a monster hurricane. We get the famous, infamous, winter nor'easter storms. This is a lashing of rain and wind and waves, combined with freezing temperatures. This mix smashes seawalls, floods low areas, topples trees, heaves over light buildings, tosses cars, overturns boats, cuts power lines, washes out roads and rails, interdicts aviation almost yearly. Each instance causes minor damage that can be quickly repaired with the next dry spell. On the plus side, there is almost no loss of life in these annual episodes. the worse is the occasional accidents like skidding in a car off of a rain-slicked road. So the human cost of these routine events is small, but the property loss can add up. If all this annual property toll is summed, it could equal or excede the loss in the one day in a century from a large hurricane.
Conclusion -------- Time erases the living memory of the 1938 event. Only the oldest folk today experienced it and most never went thru a similar incident since then. The talk at this time, January 2006, invited comparisons with hurricane Katrina from September 2005. If it were not for the occurrence of Katrina, the audience may well have taken Scotti's lecture as an interesting bit of remote history. Ms Scotti closed with the same message that other disaster-theme talks closed. It's not IF New York can be attacked by disaster, it's WHEN it will be.