The AMO has thus been quietly and secretly influencing New York life for decades—most particularly our housing market. From the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, the AMO was in its “cold” orientation. Hurricane activity quieted. That’s why the seventies and eighties saw such a housing boom on the coastline of Long Island: The sea was colder but more forgiving, and as the brutal storms of the fifties receded, insurance rates for those houses decreased, making coastal life more affordable.
But in 1995, the AMO started to reverse polarity, and the Atlantic began warming up. Sure enough, our modern plague of hurricanes started right on cue. “People who live around here have a kind of short-term memory,” says Cullen. “With the last few years of storms, they’ve been saying, ‘What the hell is happening?’ But this is exactly what you’d expect with a warmer AMO. We’re back to where they were in the fifties.”
And now the economics of the coastline are reversing themselves. More and more gorgeous waterfront mansions are incurring water damage from the increasingly intense storms. As insurance companies face bigger payouts, they’re starting to pull out. This year, Allstate canceled 30,000 policies in coastal counties of New York, and it plans to limit new business in the region; Nationwide Mutual Insurance has stopped issuing new homeowner policies in parts of Long Island’s storm-prone eastern end. One study suggested that the coastal exposure in the Greater New York area had doubled in the past ten years to $2 trillion in replacement value.
“That’s trillion, with a t,” marvels Michael R. Murray, assistant vice-president for financial analysis at the Insurance Services Office. “We’re talking a massive amount of exposure. We’re talking about something as big as Florida.”
Hitting the funnel.
What’s a region facing trillions in hurricane damage to do? Five years ago, Malcolm Bowman, an oceanography professor at suny Stony Brook, met with the heads of the Port Authority to propose an audacious project: a trio of massive hydraulic gates to protect New York from the huge storm surge in the event a catastrophic hurricane hit the city. Gargantuan gates would be anchored to the floors of three rivers: in the upper East River east of La Guardia, at the Verrazano- Narrows Bridge, and near Perth Amboy, New Jersey, off Staten Island. If a serious hurricane hit the city and ocean waters suddenly began rising, the barriers would close; their tops would stick 25 feet above the water’s surface, preventing the Atlantic from flooding—and destroying—the city.
Building the barriers would be the most ambitious engineering project in the city’s history. The Verrazano gates alone would have to stretch across a mile of open water and reach down 100 feet to the bottom. One design has them looking like saloon doors, swinging shut at the threat of danger. In another design, they lie flat on the bottom and swing upward. In either case, they would cost “at least $10 billion to erect,” guesses Bowman.
Yet the unsettling fact is that we might need them pretty soon. Statistically speaking, Bowman points out, New York is overdue to be hit by an honest-to-goodness cyclone—one that brews in the warm waters down South, then wanders up the Atlantic Coast and slams head-on into Manhattan. One of these monsters hits New York every sixteen to twenty years. We haven’t had one since 1992, precisely fourteen years ago, which makes our continued luck more and more unlikely every year. What’s more, a year from now, when El Niño ends, the AMO should reassert itself as a powerful driver of hurricanes—meaning more wind and water damage is on the way.
New York is in an exquisitely bad position to survive a direct hit. The laws of physics are arrayed against us. The first problem is that while the colder ocean waters off our shores tend to dissipate hurricanes (which is good), the ones that do make it this far north are the ones that move the fastest (bad). When Katrina hit New Orleans, it was traveling at 15 mph. But the one that will eventually hit New York will be traveling at a speed closer to 60 mph. “That means that, effectively, a Category 2 hurricane hits you as hard as a Category 5 hurricane down South,” says Nicholas Coch, a leading expert studying New York hurricanes at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences of Queens College. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s just a Category 2 storm!’ But when you realize what it’s going to do, your hair stands on end.”
Worse, a hurricane that enters New York Harbor is boxed in. New Jersey and Long Island form an L shape that hurricane experts ominously call “the funnel.” Unlike in Florida, where a hurricane pushes water up the coast, a hurricane that hits the funnel has no place to go. Its energy is concentrated into a tight blast that would hit Manhattan, driving the full force of the harbor’s waters up the East and Hudson rivers. Winds hitting the city’s skyscrapers would experience a “Bernoulli effect” amplifying the wind further, squirting a torrent of moving air into Central Park at tree-shredding intensity. “We’re cursed by our geography,” as Coch puts it. A hurricane that would be relatively mild if it hit anywhere else in the country would thus devastate New York.