Home Opinion Suffolk Closeup What if a storm like Michael strikes here?

What if a storm like Michael strikes here?

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Much of downtown Riverhead was inundated by storm surge from Sandy in October 2012. File photo: Peter Blasl

What would be the impacts to Long Island if a hurricane like this week’s Hurricane Michael or last month’s Hurricane Florence struck the island?

Long Islanders should be aware of the projections of Professor Scott Mandia, a meteorologist who teaches courses at Suffolk County Community College on weather and climate change, of the consequences of a major hurricane hitting here.

As he details on a remarkable series of web pages, a Category 4 hurricane, the level of Hurricane Michael, “inundates” — a term widely used by meteorologists these days to describe severe flooding— “entire communities” on Long Island. A Category 4 hurricane “inundates,” he says, the “entire communities” of North Haven, Greenport, Montauk, Westhampton Beach and Orient, among others, and in western Suffolk, Amityville, Lindenhurst, Babylon, West Islip and Bay Shore, among others. A Category 4 hurricane “inundates” in Nassau County, he forecasts, the “entire” communities of Woodmere, Valley Stream, Lynbrook, Long Beach, Atlantic Beach, Lido Beach, Freeport, Merrick and Wantagh, among others.

Also, for islands off Long Island, a Category 4 hurricane “inundates” Shelter Island “except for a few high points,” along with Plum Island and Gardiner’s Island.

See this interactive map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center for estimated storm surge inundation on Long Island.

Moreover, it would only take a Category 1 hurricane — the level of Hurricane Florence when it hit North Carolina, although out in the ocean approaching the coast, it had been a Category 3 hurricane — to cause Montauk Point to be “completely cut off from the rest of the South Fork,” Mandia says.

If there were a Category 3 hurricane, he says, “Much of the North and South Forks are entirely under water.”

Moreover, Mandia says, “Given public complacency, the amount of people needing to evacuate, the few evacuation routes off Long Island, and the considerable area affected by storm surge, more lead-time is needed for a proper evacuation than in other parts of the country.” 

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File photo: Peter Blasl

Mandia, of Miller Place, has a master’s degree in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University and is also assistant chair of the Department of Physical Sciences at Suffolk County Community College.

He has special expertise on the Hurricane of 1938 which ravaged Long Island and much of New England 80 years ago last month. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which sets the categories, wasn’t in use then, but today the Hurricane of 1938 is considered to have been a Category 3 hurricane when it struck Long Island.

A Category 4 hurricane is one with a wind speed of 131 to 155 miles per hour; Category 3 is 111 to 130 mph; Category 2 is 96 to 110 mph; and Category 1 is 74 to 95 mph.

Mandia does not make projections for the top category of hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, Category 5 with winds of 156 miles per hour and stronger, because there is no evidence that a Hurricane 5 hurricane has struck Long Island, he said in an interview. But, he added, “I wouldn’t be surprised that with warmer water here that at some point this century a Category 5 hurricane will hit Long Island.”

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida at 155 miles per hour, it was just a mile per hour less than being a Category 5. That’s why it is being termed an “historic” monster hurricane — extreme even for often hurricane-struck Florida.

The key factor causing loss of life and damage from a hurricane is storm surge. Storm surge is defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as “the abnormal rise in seawater level during a storm, measured as the height of the water above the normal predicted astronomical tide. The surge is caused primarily by a storm’s winds pushing water onshore.”

And if a Category 4 hurricane hits Long Island, the storm surge would be more than 20 feet and as high as 28 and 29 feet, in some areas of Suffolk and Nassau Counties, Mandia said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of protecting the coast of the U.S. from hurricanes, believe it can win against hurricanes. In 1962, when I started out as a Long Island-based journalist, the Army Corps was first advancing its Fire Island to Montauk Point Project, to bolster 83 miles of Suffolk’s south shore to, in large part, ostensibly withstand hurricanes. The Army plan is still around as a $1.3 billion project. But the dunes reinforced in the project would rise, at their highest, to 15 feet — about half the height of the worst hurricane storm surge estimated by Professor Mandia for Long Island.

“Resiliency” is the word the Army Corps and politicians have been using since Sandy in 2012 as to what’s needed to protect Long Island from hurricanes and other fierce storms. It’s a nice word, but the Army Corps’ Fire Island to Montauk Point scheme is billion-buck wishful thinking.

“Hurricane storm surge causes approximately 90 percent of all storm deaths and injuries and much of the damage, therefore it is important to residents of Long Island … to be aware of the areas that will be affected by the storm surge,” Mandia said. “The southern shore of Long Island is most vulnerable to storm surge inundations because hurricane landfall will first occur there and the low elevation will allow sea water to move well inland.”

Complicating things today, as Mandia notes on his web pages: “Unfortunately, in the past decades, the coastal population has also increased substantially which further increases the hurricane risks.”

And then there is the federally subsidized flood insurance program that “almost rewards people for building in dumb locations,” Mandia in our interview.

The gargantuan elephant in the hurricane-room now is climate change, which Mandia and other scientists say is responsible for the increased severity of major hurricanes.

“All coastal storms are now worse due to sea level rise caused by human activities that are warming the climate,” Mandia said. “A warmer climate means more ice melt, which adds water to our oceans. Warmer water expands and thus rises upward, a double-whammy for sea-level rise. Imagine a basketball hoop 10 feet above the floor and consider a dunk to be a storm over-topping a sea wall or other barrier. Now imagine humans have caused that floor to rise by a foot. It is much easier to dunk a basketball now. More flooding just like we saw in Sandy, Harvey, Maria, Florence and every hurricane from now onward.”

Climate change is caused by the use of fossil fuels.

Al Gore, who first took on climate change as a U.S. senator and continued as vice president and now a citizen-activist, said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last month: “We’re still treating the atmosphere as an open sewer. We’re putting 110 million tons every day of man-made, heat-trapping pollution into the sky…That’s why the oceans are getting so hot. That’s why Hurricane Florence intensified so rapidly. That’s why there are fish from the ocean swimming in the streets of Miami at high tide — because of the melting ice and sea level rise,” he said.

“The scientists were spot-on in warning us about all of those consequences,” Gore said. “Now the evening news every night is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelations… This is a really critical choice that we have to make. We must change. The second question: Can we change? We have the ability and the technologies to do it.”

Meanwhile, the impacts from a major hurricane “point to a likely future disaster in Suffolk County,” Mandia says.

To eliminate the cause of increasingly severe hurricanes, there must be an end to reliance on fossil fuel and a move to green, clean, non-carbon emitting energy led by solar and wind power, Gore says. “We have the ability and the technologies to do it.”

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl