The rain outside is nothing new; after all, this is one of the wettest Augusts on record. The difference is the amount of rain and the accompanying wind from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. As I sit at my desk this weekend, it’s easy to see that this storm promises to be messier and more disruptive than anything we’ve had for a while.
No, it isn’t “Key Largo” with Bogie and Edward G. Robinson squaring off during what was presumably the monster hurricane that wiped out Flagler’s railway and killed many aboard a train trying to flee the Florida Keys in the 1930s. Irene probably won’t be like the quickie storm in the 1980s (Donna?) that whipped over Long Island in a matter of a few hours, but left lots of big downed trees like those in our driveway in Mattituck. I recall driving upstate, away from the North Fork, to avoid Gloria in the 1970s, and digging ditches, cutting trees and clearing branches near the family summer home in Westchester County in the 1950s to divert water pouring off a mountain after Carol passed through. Best guess is for Irene to be similar to Carol. Right now, it’s early on a Sunday morning, and we’ll have to see.
Thanks to today’s technology and warning systems set up at government (NASA and NOAA) expense and paid for by us taxpayers, there’s no dearth of information about timing and path of coastal storms. Yes, there will be a few accidents and, sadly, some fatalities, but nothing like the hundreds who perished in the September storm of 1938, the “Long Island Express,” (look at those old photos of Greenport awash) and also during and after Katrina in New Orleans a few years ago. Incidentally, there have been even more terrible storms and storm tragedies dating back to colonial times, and the Galveston hurricane around the turn of the last century which cost in the order of thousands of lives was among the most destructive.
Putting aside historical perspectives, the basics of storms are pretty simple. Wind velocity is the first critical parameter because the magnitude of the force of wind on exposed surfaces varies as the cube of wind speed. Compare the winds from a weak force one storm (Irene at 75 miles per hour) with force three (Katrina at 150 miles per hour); you get eight times Irene’s force from Katrina and you get 19 times Irene’s force from the New England hurricane of 1938 (an estimated 200-mile-per-hour force five).
Rainfall amounts, especially to the west of the storm, provide the second critical parameter. If soils are saturated or where drainage is poor (think development and concrete) three inches is problematic while nine inches is a nightmare. On the other hand, in sandy, dry soil on undeveloped upland, the difference is dramatic. Years ago we ran Brittanys in the pine barrens around Brookhaven immediately after a seven-inch gullywasher, and easily got around the occasional large pool of water.
Duration is the third factor. With Irene moving so slowly, 18 miles per hour, and with the storm size so large (damaging winds were in an area roughly 200 miles across, centered around the eye) wind damage could persist for 10 to 11 hours. Because wind speeds vary so much with polar angle about the center, this estimate is somewhat high.
Last but not least is the timing of the storm. What makes Irene especially nasty is the so-called “storm surge,” the wall of water pushed by the storm, and the timing of tides. When we last looked, Irene was scheduled to arrive around high tides, new-moon tides, in fact, in much of the area. Six-foot waves atop nine-foot storm surges are bad news for seaside dwellers. Goodbye to beaches and bulkheads in the worst cases.
Wildlife and fisheries recover from such events although there will be some changes in patterns. Migrating birds that started down the coast early will certainly be affected, and we felt sorry for the migrating Monarchs we saw the other day. But the wildfowl riding the tailwinds will fly easily. Maybe there will be some new cuts and inlets along the South Shore oceanfront or along the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound. Surfcasters will adjust accordingly.
We’ll have to get used to storms, too, especially if they become more frequent or more intense in this “homocene” era of human-affected climate. There will undoubtedly be claims for declarations of areas as disaster zones and plenty of applications for compensation from the federal government. Most of the public will be grateful to see cleanup crews and first responders as well. Bills for cleanup will be considerable, running into the billions. It will be interesting to see if those who are so critical of federal, state, and local governments (and deny these entities revenues) continue to insist that government is unnecessary. Perhaps these folks will free themselves of government entirely and pay for their own cleanup and damage.