Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storm Surge

Overlooking the Hudson River. 4:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday morning update. I awoke about nine (after hitting the sack after two a.m.) with the storm having passed. Or so it seemed from my window. Grey overhead, colder air outside, the avenue and side streets covered with the debris of falling leaves and smaller branches and some fallen limbs.

From the point of view of those of us living on higher ground, both Upper East Side and West Side, it was quite a wind storm but hardly the horrendous disaster that we now know occurred farther downtown.
Because of the terrible flooding of the highways, the streets, the tunnels and the subways, New York is at a standstill -- cold, damp, and grey. It is hard to even consider for those of us who were simply stranded inside our warm apartments, and very difficult for anyone to get around.

A friend of mine who lives in Stuyvesant Town (Avenue A, etc. in the high teens) has been without power and hot water for two days now. No phone connection, his cell works only outside. He told me 20th Street east of First Avenue was flooded waist high with cars floating down the street. The pictures tell the story better than I could. The weather map tells a more horrible one:
Another friend who lives upstate in Columbia County, a former New Yorker, was also safer and less hindered in that location, reminded me of the inevitable, however: “New Yorkers are resilient.” That’s what we have to bank on.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012. Storm Surge. New Yorkers stayed home yesterday. The public transportation was shut down – although mail was delivered, which was unexpected. Schools were closed. I didn't go near the market, and didn't need to. Everything was canceled, even little dinner parties.

It felt like Sunday. For a minute there I had to remind myself that it wasn't. Because it was a holiday in a way, thanks to Mother Nature.

It was amazing to look across the river and see that the tip of Roosevelt Island where the small park and the lighthouse stands, was underwater. This was at high tide which I would guess was six or eight feet above normal. The Promenade where I was standing must be about 30 or more feet from the water. Parts of the FDR were flooding from the river overflowing into the lower lanes.
Most of the day yesterday was calm, not particularly windy or rainy. The Promenade was active with people out for a stroll and and look-see; families, people walking their dogs, couples jogging. All overcast and yet calm. Curiosity seekers we used to be called. Standing, looking, wondering; then go back home and look at the TV and see what we're in for.

It was that kind of a day. I took an hour's nap in the early afternoon and when I awoke, I felt like I could go for another hour. Someone told me that was because of the barometric pressure which was lower than had ever been recorded in this climate. Put me to sleep.

I read on another site that the worst of it would be between 7 and 10 last night. It did get a lot windier so that it gusted in roars and howling, and then quieted down as if having stopped to catch its breath. Or rather, Her breath, Mother Nature's breath. But there wasn't a lot of rain, just some, also coming in gusts from the north northeast.
The frightening scene on Avenue C and 13th Street (via iWitness Weather):
About 8 I went down to the Promenade again to see if I could get a picture of Roosevelt Island at high evening tide. The winds were much stronger, just this side of scary. I didn't go on to the Promenade but stood by iron fence by 10 Gracie Square. It was difficult to see the other side, but I could see that the water had now covered all off the ground of the northern part of the island. That would indicate a high tide of about ten feet or more. While I was standing there trying to get a shot of it, the winds got so strong I had to brace myself against a wall and hold tightly to the steel railing. 

A minute of that and I decided I should go back to my building (which was about forty feet away). The wind chased me with enough heft that for a moment I thought it was going to knock me over. It didn't, and it may just sound like an overactive imagination. Surges, all kinds, can do that sort of thing.

It was a very quiet day otherwise, with the exception of people who live elsewhere across the country or the ocean calling to find out how we were holding up. The media reportage is very dramatic but then so too are some realities. There was major flooding downtown. Even just north of us, the river had overflowed onto the Drive and York Avenue also, at 90th Street.  And remember, New York was and has all along been on the periphery of this great storm. God knows what it was like elsewhere, and how many people and animals were harmed by it.
JH was walking around the Upper West Side at about 4 PM. He couldn't access the river as the NYPD was turning curious onlookers away.
Although Sandy has produced some big numbers she is far from the only great storm or hurricane that has hit these shores.  There have been several monstrous storms over the past three centuries. We tend to remember them in terms of a generation or two.

I remember the Hurricane of '38 even though I wasn't on the planet yet. Because growing up, I often heard references to it by family members. It was known officially by several names including the Great New England Hurricane. Forecasting was much less sophisticated seventy-four years ago, and people didn't have much warning. Many who did, couldn't believe it, and so ignored it – at their peril.

It arrived on September 20th, just after the end of the summer season, so many who would have been in its path had dispersed from the beach communities and returned home. It moved very fast – up to an astounding 70 mph forward movement. I saw some footage of it once taken on the coast in Rhode Island, where the waves were so high that when the surge came, the ocean just wrapped itself around an enormous ark of a three storey wooden cottage, and carried it whole out to sea. It was shocking. You could see that anyone in that house was doomed, instantly.
The Bathing Corporation after the Hurricane of '38.
The Hurricane of '38 (which is how it was always referred to in my house growing up) killed as many as 800 people all over New England, destroying more than 55,000 homes, damaged hundreds of buildings, killed more than 2 million trees, carried away bridges and roadways, and made its destruction from the Bahamas all the way up the Atlantic Coast to Maine and Southwestern Quebec.

Out in the Hamptons, a movie theater playing a matinee, with about 20 customers, was swept out to sea. Everyone drowned. There were 29 deaths in Westhampton alone, and more than 20 more farther out east.  In Rhode Island, the storm swept away hundreds of summer cottages and in Narragansett Bay, the tide rose to nearly 16 feet above normal. Some people in downtown Providence were drowned in their cars.

Fortuitously, NYSD has a friend, William Rabbe, who has a vintage family photo album of the damage wreaked upon the village of Southampton, and has lent us these images. The environment looks almost primitive in the Sun and the sand, because of the wreckage strewn everywhere. Yet that same Sun and sand obscures memory in time. Looking at these pictures left me wondering about Sandy's visit to the Hamptons. We should know soon ...

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