Not Just Nature
Hurricane Sandy was, barometrically speaking, an extremely intense storm, though the 1938 Great New England Hurricane was likely more powerful. The wind ﬁeld (the extent of strong winds) was immense: three times Hurricane Katrina’s.
Predictably, what seemed to impress those in power in the immediate wake of the tragedy was the sheer dominance of the natural world. President Barack Obama said, “All of us have been shocked by the force of Mother Nature.” The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, added, “This was a major, major assault by Mother Nature.” Discussing the loss of life, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out that “sadly, nature is dangerous.”
There is, of course, no denying the magnitude of this low-pressure system. Sandy caused the storm tide at the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, to reach its highest level — 14.06 feet — since the start of record keeping at the site. What’s more, although ﬂood-insurance maps drawn by the federal government beginning in 1983 determined that 33 square miles of land in New York City remained at risk of a one-in-100-year ﬂood, Sandy resketched the maps and proved that, in fact, a remarkable 51 square miles of land — 17 percent of the city — was in jeopardy.
And yet to interpret the calamity as an act of nature is to make it seem as if the disaster came out of nowhere. Invoking Mother Nature risked leaving the impression that the long history of land-making and building in the ﬂoodplain had little to do with the catastrophe. Simply put, this was a self-inﬂicted calamity.
New York has been thumbing its nose at the ocean for over 300 years. The Dutch took some tentative steps into the ﬂoodplain of the East River back in the 17th century, but it was the English who invented a whole new form of property — land underwater — that allowed building to go forward in harm’s way. Still, it was only in the 19th century that the idea of New York as a limitless proposition led to the extensive development of coastal areas. That move came at the expense of the wetlands and mudﬂats that once safeguarded the shoreline and helped to mitigate the effects of storm surge.
Just weeks before Sandy struck, geophysicist Klaus Jacob, who had been urging New York to deal more aggressively with the threat of natural hazards for a generation, noted that the city had been “extremely lucky.” He added that he was “disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette.” The growth imperative — that is, the idea of New York as an inﬁnitely expanding entity in terms of its population, economy and relations with the land — drove relentless development at the expense of the sea.
Cycle of Storms
High-density life unfolded in New York during a period of relative quiescence in intense hurricane activity. An 1821 hurricane scored a direct hit on the city, producing an estimated 10- to 11-foot storm surge. While subsequent storms in 1893, 1903, 1938 and a spate in the early 1950s buffeted the region, the sporadic occurrence of hurricanes led the city to spend most of the 20th century planning for snowstorms and garden-variety ﬂoods.
Not until 1960 did a storm comparable to the 1821 hurricane in terms of its effect on the tide strike the city. Hurricane Donna, which made landfall on Long Island and caused the wind to gust to 93 mph at LaGuardia Airport, raised water levels at the Battery to 13.3 feet, the second-highest level ever recorded at the site. The scale of the ﬂooding caused by Donna prompted consideration of a proposal to build hurricane barriers.
While the idea was being mulled over, the surface of the sea cooled off. The climatic change at issue is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), a periodic cycle of warming and cooling of surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. During the warm phase of the cycle (coincident with the 1938 hurricane, the ﬂurry of storms in the 1950s and Hurricane Donna), there is an increased chance that weak storms will evolve into more intense hurricane systems. But after 1965, the cycle shifted into its cooler phase, working to insulate New York. The hurricanes that did make contact turned out to be relatively anemic. Interest in hurricane preparedness and protection waned as Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Bob in 1991 petered out as they neared New York. In 1999, the metropolitan area again escaped disaster when Hurricane Floyd, downgraded to a tropical storm as it reached the city, arrived at low tide. Floyd failed to inflict any signiﬁcant ﬂooding.
Then the climate changed again. The warm phase of the AMO returned. In 2006, Max Mayﬁeld, the director of the National Hurricane Center, said, “It is not a question of if a major hurricane will strike the New York area, but when.”