It was an unpleasant Halloween surprise up and down the East Coast last Monday as massive Hurricane Sandy became the most powerful storm to affect New York in the city’s 390-year history. Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, and pushed a nine-foot storm surge into New York Harbor, flooding large parts of the city. Sandy was truly a record-breaking storm, with the largest wind area ever recorded in an Atlantic tropical cyclone; at landfall, the storm was bringing 40-mile-per-hour sustained winds to an area of coastline stretching from Wilmington, North Carolina to southern Maine, a diameter of almost 1000 miles and causing power outages as far apart as South Carolina and Ontario, Canada. This historic storm left 160 dead as it traveled from the central Caribbean to the Jersey shore, and caused untold billions of dollars in damage.
Sandy was an unusual storm from the start, forming south of Jamaica on October 22 as the eighteenth named storm of this highly active hurricane season. It quickly intensified as it moved northward, impacting Jamaica and eastern Cuba and dumping torrential rains over parts of Haiti, killing 67 in the islands. It reached its peak intensity in the central Bahamas as a strong Category 2 hurricane, before adverse atmospheric conditions disrupted the storm’s circulation. Still over warm water, the hurricane continued to strengthen, building its winds outward instead of forming a strong core; this process continued until landfall, leading to the immense wind field of the hurricane. It made landfall in southern New Jersey on the evening of October 29, as the storm was in the process of merging with a frontal system over the Appalachians. The resulting hybrid system caused high winds and blizzards across the southern mountains, particularly in West Virginia, and energized the storm’s center. Strong, near-hurricane-force winds out of the southeast drove a massive surge of floodwater into the waterways around New York at the stroke of high tide, leading to a maximum water level of almost fourteen feet above mean low tide in Battery Park, Manhattan. This was more than three feet above the previous record, set in a hurricane in 1821. Floodwaters inundated lower Manhattan, including Wall Street and the Ground Zero construction site; in addition, large-scale flooding was reported in Queens, Brooklyn, and Jersey City, New Jersey. Power outages covered the city as Con Edison, New York’s electrical utility, shut down the grid to prevent damage. Floodwaters filled most road tunnels in and out of Manhattan, as well as much of the subway system. Flooding forced a temporary shutdown of all three of New York’s major airports and washed out a portion of the New Jersey Turnpike. Floodwaters and downed trees hindered emergency personnel from rescue efforts, as a massive fire broke out in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, raging out of control and destroying over eighty homes. All subway lines in the city were closed, as well as the major auxiliary NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road networks.
Damage in coastal areas on the shorelines of Delaware, New Jersey, Long Island, and Massachusetts was severe, and an ominous silence emanated from areas of the New Jersey barrier islands for almost a day after landfall. Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey, suffered the brunt of the storm surge and massive waves; the iconic Atlantic City boardwalk was almost completely destroyed and much of the city was flooded. Storm preparations were marred by evacuation miscues, most notably Atlantic City mayor Lorenzo Langford’s assertion that evacuation was unnecessary and the city’s storm shelters would prove sufficient – a statement that was quickly proved foolish when several of those shelters went underwater during the storm. Similar non-evacuations occurred up and down the New Jersey coastline, much to the chagrin of Governor Chris Christie, and the Coast Guard ended up performing over 500 rescues in Atlantic City alone.
This storm was historic in many ways – it was the first hurricane to strike New Jersey since 1921; it was almost assuredly one of the two costliest hurricanes in U.S. history, and may press Hurricane Katrina for the top spot; it dealt a knockout punch to New York that left the world’s greatest city out cold, and it could take weeks before the city is fully back up and running again. And though the tunnels may be pumped and the beachfront villas rebuilt, the scars of this massive storm will remain for many years, a testament to the raw power and unpredictability of the forces of nature.
Massive Hurricane Sandy shown on October 29, two days before landfall in New Jersey. The storm’s historic size is apparent, as its outer bands extend from central Florida well into Canada