A Mighty Wind Preparing for a Hurricane?

A Mighty Wind

 People living along the Gulf Coast have long accepted hurricanes as a fact of  life—one that brings with it torrential rain, howling winds, and devastating  hailstorms. The Mid-Atlantic has been hit with a few big storms over the past  two centuries—some of which caused major damage and even death—but historically, most of us here in New York haven't considered ourselves to be  residents of 'hurricane country.' That nonchalance changed in 2012 with the  impact of Superstorm Sandy. With billions of dollars in damaged and destroyed  property, thousands of displaced residents, power outages affecting hundreds of  thousands for days on end, and loss of human life, that epic weather event was  unlike anything most New York natives had ever experienced.  

 “Forty-three New Yorkers lost their lives” to Sandy, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in the 2013 State of the City  address, “and it's up to us to do all we can to prevent that from happening again. After  the storm passed, it was clear that the houses and businesses most damaged by  Hurricane Sandy were built decades ago, while those that were built in the last  few years, or are now being built, held up pretty well. That was no accident.”  

 With all indicators pointing to the likelihood of more and bigger storms in the  coming years, it's crucial for managers, boards, and residents of the city's  multifamily buildings to take steps to keep both people and property as safe as  possible when the inevitable strikes. Property managers and boards must develop  and implement intelligent, workable storm preparation and evacuation  strategies, and residents must be aware of those strategies. It’s easier said than done.  

 Big Apple, Big Weather

 While the geography of cities like New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco  make them susceptible to natural disasters and catastrophic weather events, New  York’s historical dark days have generally had man-made origins: fires, gas  explosions, blackouts, and of course, terrorist attacks. But there is “weather” in the Big Apple, too.  

 In 1821, the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane, now thought to be a Category 3  storm, made landfall at Jamaica Bay. The storm surged 13 feet in just one hour,  and much of Manhattan south of Canal Street was flooded. Despite being the only  hurricane to make a direct hit in the nation’s largest city, few deaths were reported.  

 The so-called “White Hurricane”—the Great Blizzard of 1888—wreaked havoc on the East Coast, including New York. Temperatures plummeted an  astonishing 60 degrees, two feet of snow fell, and powerful winds created snow  drifts 20 feet deep. (This was only a few months after the Schoolhouse Blizzard  in Ohio prompted then-president Ulysses S. Grant to re-establish the National  Weather Service as a civilian operation, as Nate Silver relates in The Signal  and the Noise.) Between the five boroughs, 400 people died.  

 The heat wave of August 1896 brought scorching temperatures for more than a  week. Sunset brought no relief―the temperature never dipped below 90 for nine  consecutive days. The dead air and oppressive humidity, combined with the  stifling living conditions in the tenement houses on the Lower East Side  contributed to 420 deaths.  

 Nineteen people died in a heavy rainstorm in 1937 when a tenement building in  New Brighton collapsed. A year later, the New England Hurricane of ‘38 made landfall in Long Island, killing ten people in New York and knocking out  the power.  

 In December of 1992, a nor’easter ravaged the Eastern seaboard, flooding the low-lying areas of the city.  Tropical Storm Irene struck in 2011. But even after all that, Superstorm Sandy  became the most damaging weather event in the city’s history.  

 Ready for the Next 'Big One'

 “Sandy raised the bar,” Bloomberg said, “and now we must rise to the occasion. This year, we'll develop a long-term plan  so that when extreme weather hits...we'll be able to get the lights back on  quickly and ensure that the heat keeps working, the gas stations stay open, the  hospitals maintain power and the transportation system keeps operating.”  

 Leading the mayor’s effort in this initiative is Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City  Economic Development Corporation. According to Bloomberg, Pinsky will deliver a  report on how to protect the city from extreme weather events by Memorial Day—but this was before press time. In a March 28 speech to the Lower Manhattan  Marketing Association, however, he hinted at what his proposals might involve.  

 “We are not going to climate-proof New York City,” he said. “That would be impossible, and it would be folly to claim that that is our goal.  But what we do believe is that through a multi-layered approach we can reduce  the impact of climate change, and we can ensure that where we do get impacted,  we are able to bounce back faster.”  

 Part of the problem is that, due to climate change, the incidence of “100-year storms” has become more frequent than once in a century. Maps prepared by FEMA in 1983  designating potential flood zones for a once-in-a-100-year event covered just  260,000 of the city’s 8 million residents, and a mere 36,000 buildings. When Sandy struck, more than  half of the buildings hit were beyond the borders drawn by FEMA.  

 “New York City has always been vulnerable to coastal flooding,” Pinsky explained in his speech, “but what Sandy and the new flood maps from FEMA show is that our vulnerability  is actually greater than we had understood.”  

 The threat of coastal flooding will only increase in the coming decades, as the  Arctic ice caps continue to melt. The New York City Panel on Climate Change, a  group of professors at various area universities gathered by Mayor Bloomberg,  predicted that the sea level would rise at least two and as much as ten inches  in the next 15 years. Fifty years from now, the ocean might be a foot, or even  two feet, higher than it is today. Even so, there are other factors to consider besides the FEMA flood maps, Pinksy  said. “They don’t take into account things like sea level rise or the future intensity of  storms. The flood maps also don’t show us things like what happens when you have frequent downpours, which have  an impact on our reservoirs and water supply, which have an impact on our  infrastructure. They don’t talk about things like heat waves, which actually kill more people in the  United States each year than any other natural phenomenon. And they don’t tell you about things like drought.”  

 Any New Yorkers who were not aware of the potential impact by a major storm  three years ago are certainly aware of it now, after what happened in Staten  Island and the Rockaways in Sandy’s wake. But board members and property managers have more exigent matters to  attend to than preparing for a phantom hurricane that may or may not strike.  Unless your building is in one of the worst-hit areas, it’s an easy potential outcome to ignore.  

 Even during Sandy, “the Upper East Side, the well-to-do, had no problems whatsoever,” says Jacqueline Watkins Slifka, a longtime resident of that neighborhood, the  founder of the Community Coalition for Emergency Preparedness, and perhaps the  city’s most dedicated civilian in the area of emergency management. “They still don’t have an idea of what a real disaster is.”  

 For years, Slifka has been a sort of Cassandra, forecasting extreme weather  events to come and too often being ignored. After Irene, she went around  hanging up fliers that asked, “What would you do in an emergency? Do you want to know where your nearest  shelter is?” and provided a number—hers—to call for more information. “One person called!” she says, exasperated.  

 So what can a building do? Prepare for the worst. “Your building should be able to be self-sufficient for a week to 10 days,” she says, “without city help, and without federal help.” She encourages board members to come to meetings of her organization, to learn  about what’s being done and what can be done. The two most important things to do, she  advises, are to make sure the building has a water supply in the event that the  municipal water is not working, and to ensure that the building has an internal  communications system that will function without power.  

 Much of emergency preparedness is about communication—where to go for good news, how to relay information to residents of the  building, and so forth. Although she meets regularly with board presidents,  Slifka reports that few are active in preparing for disaster. Even spending an  hour formulating a plan is better than waiting until it’s too late.  

 Because, while it may take another 100 years for a hurricane to wreak as much  havoc as Sandy wrought, the odds are stacked in Mother Nature’s favor. Someday, everyone will need a response plan. Bloomberg and Pinsky and  activists like Slifka are already thinking along those lines. You should, too.   

 Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.  

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