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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Evacuations Not Hype As Media Ignores Storm Surge

Hurricane Irene's classification as a Category One hurricane is misleading and understates the danger from the storm surge that it will produce.

The primary danger from Hurricane Irene will be the storm surge.  The second major danger will be the massive rainfall and associated flooding.  Each of these factors will hinder the ability of emergency responders to get to people with medical emergencies -- and justify evacuations.  Indeed, the storm surge is the primary killer from most hurricanes hitting developed areas.  (In undeveloped and mountainous areas like in parts of the Caribbean, the primary killer happens to be mudslides.) 

The wind factor is only third on the list of severity, in my opinion.  This is why Irene remains a major danger, even as a Category One hurricane that may not even be a hurricane by the time it passes New York City.  (See this chart showing the single-digit percentage chances of hurricane force winds striking Atlantic City, New York City and Montauk Point, NY.) While Hurricane Irene is only a Category One hurricane, that classification refers only to its wind potential. (Indeed, the categories now only refer to the wind scale.)  The system is barely a hurricane as of mid-morning Saturday. 

Hurricane Irene has led to unprecedented evacuations of low-lying areas of New York City.  This is not media hype nor the misguided policy panic of public officials who were justifiably embarrassed by their absence (or incompetence) during prior weather disasters. The evacuations are justified because of the very likely serious flooding from storm surges as Hurricane Irene pushes water from the Atlantic Ocean, and Long Island Sound, into and over the shores of New York City and the New Jersey barrier islands.

These evacuations recognize that anticipated and even moderate storm surges will easily flood those areas, like the entire Coney Island peninsula, the Broad Channel island in the middle of Jamaica Bay and the Midland Beach and South Beach neighborhoods of Staten Island.  Having walked each of those neighborhoods at some point, I know that those areas are no more than a few feet above sea level.  (And people live on Broad Channel, they're a hardy bunch, some even walk upright.)   A mild surge -- a certainty with any landfalling hurricane pushing water off the ocean -- will overrun the shore.  Once streets are flooded, emergency responders will be unable to reach people in distress.  The evacuations help ensure that needed emergency treatment for evacuees can be provided.  Think of the women in childbirth, the possible heart-attack and cardiac victims.  If roads are flooded or otherwise impassable -- like in this past winter's infamous December blizzard in New York City (26 inches of snow) -- emergency medical technicians will not get to those people in time.  

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