Last week, as the news from New Orleans kept getting worse, New York found itself in the position of watching another American city’s catastrophe, and giving back some of what was extended to us—in money and worry—four years ago. Despite the horrors we’ve seen, this was not one we could easily imagine.
But our own hurricane history is more tumultuous than many New Yorkers might think. In 1821, when a major hurricane made a direct hit on Manhattan, stunned residents recorded sea levels rising as fast as thirteen feet in a single hour down where there’s now Battery Park City. Everything was flooded south of Canal Street. The storm struck at low tide, though, and, according to Queens College professor Nicholas Coch, a coastal geologist who calls himself a “forensic hurricanologist,” that’s “the only thing that saved the city.”
Then there’s Hog Island. The pig-shaped mile-long barrier island was off the southern coast of the Rockaways. After the Civil War, developers built saloons and bathhouses on it, and Hog Island became a Gilded Age version of the Hamptons. The city’s political bosses and business elite used the place as a kind of beachy annex of Tammany Hall. That all ended on the night of August 23, 1893, when a terrifying Category 2 hurricane made landfall on the swamp that is now JFK airport.
The hurricane was a major event. All six front-page columns of the August 25, 1893, New York Times were dedicated to the “unexampled fury” of the “West Indian monster.” The storm sunk dozens of boats and killed scores of sailors. In Central Park, hundreds of trees were uprooted, and gangs of Italian immigrant boys “roamed … in the early hours of the morning collecting the dead sparrows and plucking them of their feathers.” Apparently looting was not yet in vogue. The brand-new Metropolitan Life building on Madison Avenue was severely damaged. And a 30-foot storm surge swept across southern Brooklyn and Queens, destroying virtually every man-made structure in its path. These days, evacuation plans are in place, officials said last week. But “try to tell someone in Sheepshead Bay that they have to evacuate immediately because within the next 24 hours they’ll have 30 feet of storm surge,” says Mike Lee, director of Watch Command at the New York City Office of Emergency Management. “They’ll laugh at you. I mean, I barely even believe it.”
As for Hog Island, “it largely disappeared that night,” Coch says. “As far as I know, it is the only incidence of the removal of an entire island by a hurricane.”
Statistically, the New York area is hit by one of these monster storms every 75 years or so; “it’s just a matter of time,” says Lee. After Hog Island, the next big one came a little ahead of schedule, the “Long Island Express” of 1938, with 183-mile-per-hour winds. At the time, Long Island wasn’t a densely populated suburban sprawl. The same hurricane today would cause incredible havoc. Hurricane Carol, a Category 3 storm that hit eastern Long Island and came ashore in Connecticut in 1954, mostly missed the city (even as it inundated downtown Providence, Rhode Island, under twelve feet of water).
Were another Long Island Express to barrel in, AIR Worldwide Corporation, an insurance-industry analyst, estimates $11.6 billion in New York losses alone. On AIR’s list of “the top ten worst places for an extreme hurricane to strike,” New York City is No. 2, behind only Miami. New Orleans is ranked fifth.