Professor Coch, whose business card reads "forensic hurricanologist,"believes that the best way to understand New York City's hurricane future is to study its past. Hebecame New York City's leading hurricane historian virtually by accident.
After the nor'easters of December 1992 and March 1993 devastated Rockaway,Coch sent a group of his coastal-geology undergrads to observe the Army Corps of Engineers replenishingbeaches with sand dredged from the sea. The students reported back that "the beach was covered ingarbage. Coch remembers telling them, "Get used to it. This is New York City." But they said, "No,this is funny garbage." In the dredged-up sand, Coch's students found hundreds of artifacts - plates,whiskey bottles, teapots, beer mugs, lumps of coal and, what proved to be the most telling clue ofall, an old hurricane lamp. Mystified at how a treasure trove of 19th-century objects could havewound up underwater hundreds of feet off the coast of Rockaway, Coch and his students began investigating. It took them about two years to unravel the mystery of Hog Island: New York City's version of Atlantis. It turns out there was once a small, sandy spit of an island off the southerncoast of Rockaway. In the years after the Civil War, developers built saloons and bathhouses, andHog Island became a sort of 1890s version of the Hamptons. During the summers, the city's Democraticbosses used Hog Island as a kind of outdoor annex of Tammany Hall. That all ended on the night of August23, 1893, when a terrifying category-2 hurricane rolled up from Norfolk, Virginia, and made landfallon what is now JFK airport. The storm was a major event. All six front-page columns of the August25, 1893 New York Times were dedicated to the "unexampled fury" of the "West Indian monster"and the damage it wrought throughout the region. Dozens of boats were sunk, and scores of sailorsperished. In Central Park "more than a hundred noble trees were torn up by the roots," and thousandsof sparrows lay dead on the ground. "Gangs of small boys roamed through the Park in the early hoursof the morning collecting the dead sparrows and picking their feathers." At the brand-new Met Life building at Madison Avenue and 23rd Street,a heavy-iron fence was torn away by the wind, plunging 10 stories and crashing through a stained-glassdome before landing on a mosaic "including quantities of costly Mexican onyx." In Brooklyn, atWyckoff and Myrtle Avenues, "the water in the street was up to a man's waist," and residents usedladders to get in and out of their houses. Most of the boats moored at the Williamsburg Yacht Clubwere "sunk, driven ashore or demolished." The East River rose "until it swept over the sea wall inthe Astoria district and submerged the Boulevard." At Coney Island, 30-foot waves swept 200 yardsinland, destroying nearly every man-made structure in its path and wrecking the elevated railroad. "Hog Island largely disappeared that night," Coch says. "As far as Iknow, it is the only incidence of the removal of an entire island by a hurricane." Hurricanes, Coch reminds, "operate on a geologic scale." --- Will New York City get hit by the Big One this season? It's impossibleto say. But we do know this: The risk of a major hurricane hitting the metropolitan region is significantlygreater than it has been in a long time. Meteorologists have observed that Atlantic Ocean hurricanestend to wax and wane over roughly 20-year cycles. Nineteen ninety-five marked the beginning ofa period of above-normal hurricane activity. We are now in the middle of that cycle. The same climateconditions that made last year's hurricane season so active are in place and even augmented thisyear. Low wind sheer and sea-surface pressure and a favorable African easterly jet stream all createideal conditions for Atlantic hurricanes. El Nino, the unusually warm current that appearsin the tropical Pacific off the coast of Ecuador every three to seven years, tends to dampen hurricaneactivity in the Atlantic. This year there is no El Nino. Additionally, scientists say that man-made global warming is increasingthe odds that tropical storms will dump on New York City with greater frequency and intensity. TropicalAtlantic sea-surface temperatures have steadily risen over the last decade. Hurricanes are essentiallygigantic steam engines; they gain power from warm seas. "With global warming there is more moisture in the atmosphere," saysDr. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "Thismoisture is the main fuel for hurricanes and tropical storms." This year, tropical Atlantic sea-surfacetemperatures are the warmest they have ever been in recorded history, about two degrees Fahrenheitabove normal. And while there is debate within the hurricane research community as to how much impactglobal warming ultimately has, there is no longer any question that global warming is contributingto more extreme weather events around the world. Whatever the causes, forecasters are confident that 2005 will be a busyhurricane season, busier even than last year's. Meteorologists are forecasting 15 named storms,eight of them hurricanes, four of them "intense" hurricanes. In an average year, about 10 stormsget names, six become hurricanes and two become intense. New York City's hurricane season runs from August to October, peakingaround September 10. To prepare for a storm, Lee suggests that New Yorkers call 311 or go online,find out what evacuation zone they're in, and develop a plan. If a storm comes rolling in and the citytells you to evacuate, take heed. "People who decide to ride out a storm need to know that in the middleof it they can't call 911 and say, 'All right, come get me. I'm ready,'" Lee says. "We will not be ableto come and get them. Once they've made the decision to stay, they've made that decision for the longhaul. That's a very serious decision." If the Big One hits this season, Lee may be taking his own advice. The firstOEM "bunker" was located in the World Trade Center?in hindsight, a lousy location. A newOEM building is currently under construction on the bluffs of Brooklyn Heights. Until its completion,the city's emergency managers are working in a converted warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront. In the event of a direct hit by a category-3 hurricane, New York City's Office of Emergency Managementwill find itself under 22.4 feet of storm surge. Lee's not too worried about it, though. The city has a duplicate Officeof Emergency Management in an undisclosed location.