By: Stephanie Watson
Extending gracefully from the chaos and commotion of New York City is a 118-mile strip of land known as Long Island.
Twenty miles wide at its deepest point, the Island stretches itself into the Atlantic, tapering off into two pincer-shaped peninsulas; the northern peninsula culminating in Orient Point, the southern in Montauk Point.
Along the island's southern shore, a multitude of resort beaches including Montauk, Fire Island, Long Beach and the exclusive, mansion-lined Hamptons, act like a magnet for hordes of vacationers every summer. They come for the sun, sand, and quaint beachside charm. Few give any thought to the potentially destructive forces brewing in tropical waters from late spring through the end of autumn.
It has been more than a half century since the "Long Island Express" hurricane (also known as the "Great New England" hurricane) steamed across the island. Few still living there can remember its devastating effects.
In mid-September, 1938, the hurricane formed in the eastern Atlantic and aimed straight for Florida. At the last moment, the storm turned its course to Long Island. There were no warnings issued. Residents along the South Shore were completely unaware that a major Category 3 hurricane, with winds up to 130 mph, was bearing down on them.
On September 21, while vacationers were trying to squeeze the last drops out of summer, the hurricane crashed ashore. With it, came a surge of water in excess of 10 feet and waves 40 feet high, which crumpled beach homes, flooded the island and dug out two new inlets - the Shinnecock and Moriches.
Since 1938, there have been a number of damaging hurricanes on the Island, for example Hurricanes Donna in 1960 and Gloria in 1985, though none has rivaled the "Long Island Express." Long Island's location in the relatively cool North Atlantic waters usually saves it from the worst of hurricane season, but it is in no way immune.
From summer into autumn, a phenomenon known as the 'Bermuda high' dominates weather patterns over the North Atlantic. Tropical cyclones tend to be steered around the periphery of this subtropical ridge of high pressure. Though most curve harmlessly out to sea, occasionally the Bermuda High and other weather systems configure in a manner that allows destructive hurricanes to make their way to the northeastern United States. Many emergency managers on the island believe it is only a matter of time before another catastrophic hurricane hits.
Long Island |
1938 "Long Island Express" Hurricane
- Category 3
1960 Hurricane Donna
- Category 2 over Long Island
1985 Hurricane Gloria
- Category 3
1991 Hurricane Bob
- Category 2
- its worst missed Long Island to the east
1999 Hurricane Floyd
- Category 2
Long Beach, one of several narrow barrier islands connected to the rest of Long Island by bridges, is one of the most vulnerable segments of the island. Emergency management officials are fully aware of the potential risks associated with a strong landfalling hurricane.
"The whole barrier beach of Long Beach Barrier Island, which is approximately 7 miles long running east to west, is barely above sea level," explains Richard McGuire, Director of Emergency Management for Nassau County. "With a Category 3 hurricane, this entire island, which is heavily populated, would be under 12 feet of water, and that's just from a Category 3 storm."
Part of the problem lies in the island's lack of natural protection. Beach erosion from previous hurricanes and nor'easters has erased the natural dunes and depleted sand to a dangerous low, leaving Long Beach completely defenseless.
As a preventive measure, McGuire says the island is equipped with an extensive evacuation plan - three routes leading north to an inland shelter adjacent to Nassau Coliseum. The trick is to alert people ahead of time, so roadways don't become gridlocked as residents attempt to flee an oncoming hurricane.
Fire Island, another barrier beach to the east, would also be in the line of fire should a hurricane strike. In the summer, the number of people on the island swells from 300 to 50,000.
"And therein lies the problem of emergency management," says Fred Daniels, Deputy Commissioner, Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services for Suffolk County. "How do we safely evacuate people in that quantity and in the short time frame we usually have with a hurricane bearing down on us."
Unlike Long Beach, Fire Island has no direct link to the rest of Long Island, and must rely on a ferry system for evacuation. This means that emergency managers must make their decision to evacuate long before a hurricane's winds set in.
Emergency managers across Long Island are concerned because most residents don't remember a hurricane as strong as the one in 1938. They continue to build homes along the shoreline, eager for the perfect view, impervious to the imminent danger.
Meade Dickerson is no stranger to hurricanes. He has spent the last six winters in Miami Beach and summers in Fire Island. While he cautiously waits out each successive hurricane season, he says many of his neighbors on Fire Island lack the same concern.
"No one here really takes them too seriously, as no one here has really felt the brunt of one fully in many years," he says. "I do and I leave when they get close."
"It's nice to be able to wake up with the surf and go to sleep with the surf in the night," says Michael Wyllie, Meteorologist in Charge of the New York National Weather Service office. "But one of the things you have to realize is that these places are eventually going to be recaptured by the ocean. And when these storms do come up, they do need to move to be safe."
Vulnerable Cities Index
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