New NHC Chief Fears Major Hurricane Scenario For Northeast

With the National Hurricane Conference wrapping up in Orlando, Florida on Friday, and another conference occurring in the Bahamas during the course of next week, the countdown to the 2008 Atlantic Hurricane Season is on, and the National Hurricane Center’s new director, Bill Read isn’t wasting any time on trying to get the public’s attention, and focus on the upcoming season. Knowing that there has already been projections that the season will be a busy one, and that there hasn’t been a threat to the Northeast from a major hurricane since Hurricane Isabel in 2003, Read sought to remind everyone that this region is perhaps one of the most vulnerable in the United States.

In an interview with Neil Johnson of the Tampa Tribune that was posted online at Tampa Bay Online (TBO), Read expressed that his biggest fear is a significant storm impacting the Northeast, particularly New York and New England. Since 1979, the East Coast of the United States, particularly the Northeast has come away particularly unscathed from powerful hurricanes despite numerous threats. Over the past 30 years or so, the Northeast has kept a watchful eye on major storms such as David, Gloria, Bob, Felix (1996), Bertha (1996), Fran (1996), Floyd, and Isabel, but have ended up either getting weakened remnants, or dodging a bullet as the storm went out to sea. However, with the Atlantic still in the midst of a very active multi-decadal cycle, and the region still long overdue for a landfall from a major hurricane, Read has put top priority on this region.

Responding to a question that asked what part of the United States coastline concerned him the most, Read replied that the Northeast, especially New York and New England does since the region has not been hit by a major storm in decades, it is a densely populated region, much of that population believes that major hurricanes are not likely here due to the geographic orientation of the coastline, and the cooler sea surface temperatures during the summer months, and storms that come up into the Northeast are usually fast moving storms that give little time to prepare. It is these reasons put together that Read fears there could be a repeat of the Long Island Express of 1938, which was a Category Three Hurricane with winds of 125 mph that roared up the coast at close to 70 mph, and killed some 700 people in Long Island and New England.

Ironically, this year in September marks the 70th anniversary of that disaster, and back in 2001, Hurricaneville did a report on the state of preparedness in the Tri-State area including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Early portions of that series of special reports indicated that approximately 78 percent of New York’s population didn’t believe that a hurricane was possible here, and that a major hurricane making landfall in Asbury Park, New Jersey would cause an estimated $50 billion in damages at the time, and that figure is probably much higher in light of the chaos following Katrina’s impact along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

As emphasis on terrorism, particularly in New York City has increased in the years following 9/11, is there the same focus on tropical storms and hurricanes in this region? Is there the same concern that people have for a major hurricane threatening New Jersey than say a scenario that has a terrorist striking somewhere in the Garden State with say a dirty bomb? Probably not, which is another factor to consider when you weight the attitudes of residents toward the potential threat posed by mother nature during the height of the summer months. On top of that, the Garden State itself has not been directly hit by a major hurricane since the memorable Great Hurricane of 1821, which was a Category Four storm that came up into what is now Cape May from the Delaware Bay, and moved up along what is now the Garden State Parkway.

The problem that causes the apathy that exists in the Northeast is the fact that researchers and forecasters know that major hurricanes have impacted this area before, but they really don’t know how often. What we do know is this: Major storms have tracked through the Northeastern states in 1815, 1821, 1938, 1944, and 1960 (Donna). The field of Paleotempestology is one of the areas that is focusing on trying to find fossils left behind from storms of centuries ago to clue researchers in a bit more on how often these storms do strike. In the meantime though, the best guess is that on average, these storms hit every 70 years or so. The bottom line is that with insurance companies modifying, or completely eliminating policies for those living along the coastline in what had been considered relatively safe locations such as Maine and Massachusetts, residents from Maine to the Delmarva need to become better aware and prepared for this potential threat so that the chaos is limited the next time such a storm comes this way.