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Op-ed column

Ferocity from the sea, part 2

Past super storms have overwhelmed protective efforts

Sunday, November 11, 2012
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Op-ed column


Nancy Ohanian/Tribune Media
Nancy Ohanian/Tribune Media

The cleanup from the so-called superstorm, Hurricane Sandy, has begun.

More than one hundred people died and property damages will go into the tens of billions. Soon, the lights will be on, the gas stations back in operation, and the aftermath of the storm will be out of the daily news.

I do not wish to contribute to the discussion concerning the reality or significance of manmade global warming, as the subject is beyond my expertise. But my nearly 30 years in flood control work and 15 years of hurricane protection/coastal erosion experience with the state Department of Environmental Conservation may add to our understanding of infrequent great storms.

History records that a great nor’easter buried the Northeast in snow, March of 1888. It paralyzed the cities with up to four feet of snow. Fuel and food were not attainable, roofs collapsed and people suffered. We have not seen a storm like that since. Perhaps the nearest event in our lifetime occurred in 1969 when two nor’easter storms dropped a total of 40 inches of snow Christmas week.

The 1938 hurricane that struck the center of Long Island was a killer and devastated villages on Long Island and southern New England, with hundreds of deaths. It was a very rare event.

Related story

For a related opinion piece, click here.

Storm of 1944

A super nor’easter storm devastated eastern Long Island in 1944. The Army Corps of Engineers described this rare storm as the Five High event. That storm was so big that it would not allow the high tide to ebb back into the sea before the next high tide built even higher water levels, causing widespread flood damage and much suffering.

Hurricane Agnes in June 1972 nearly devastated the Capital Region far beyond what Irene did last August. That great storm was forecast to move up the Hudson when it suddenly “jumped” 200 miles westward. Its rainfall devastated communities in the Susquehanna, Genesee and Allegheny river systems of New York. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-constructed flood-control projects protecting the cities of Elmira and Corning and villages of Wellsville and Salamanca were overtopped, with much destruction and loss of life.

What if?

Several months after the flood, a National Weather Service hydrologist, with 40 years’ experience, presented a program entitled “What If?” in Albany.

What if that rare storm did not “jump” westward? I remember him saying the Mohawk River water would approach elevation 250 feet at Schenectady — 20 feet higher than the Irene event of last year! If that happened, the resulting devastation would be unimaginable!

When I was volunteering in Rotterdam Junction following Hurricane Irene in August 2011, an elderly man (he was younger than I) said that the flood was the worst that ever occurred at the Junction. I cautiously corrected him, saying that a worse flood occurred about 100 years ago. But he did not wish to hear about it since that rare event did not impact his life.

That event in March of 1913 produced the flood of record at Schenectady, with water levels nearly two feet higher than in the Irene event.

The record of hurricanes impacting the country shows that they usually hit the Southern and Mid-Atlantic states. However, eastern Long Island and Cape Cod stick out into the Atlantic and have a high probability of being hit by storms. New York harbor and the western end of Long Island have a natural protection, as that coastal region is out of the normal storm track.

Hurricane Sandy was not a strong storm, but it was massive, and metrological conditions steered it into the most populated and protected section of the Eastern Seaboard. The westward turning of that storm was highly unusual — just as when Hurricane Agnes 40 years ago “jumped” 200 miles westward.

Limited protection

We really cannot protect our coast from great storms. Yes, we can construct levees, strengthen the barrier islands and construct sea walls. Such structures offer limited protection from smaller and more common events. However, when a great storm hits, often the storm protection system fails, resulting in great damage and loss of life. Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast in 2005 is such an example.

After such events as Hurricane Sandy, there is no benefit debating the belief in manmade global warming and cursing government for lack of action in addressing that issue. It is a time to relieve the suffering.

That is what we Americans do. There are many thousands that need help in meeting basic needs and a start in rebuilding their lives.

Russ Wege lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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comments

November 11, 2012
9:07 a.m.
myshortpencil says...

I draw a different conclusion, Russ. We simply built too close to water. The only rational solution is to begin the abandonment of waterfront properties with the assumption that water levels will rise 20 to 100 feet over the next few hundred years. Failing to do that assures continued loss and misery.

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