Hurricane Irene Approaches

Hurricane Irene, originally predicted to waddle ashore somewhere in Florida as a Category 1 storm, decided to stay over the Atlantic and build up a good head of steam.  It’s now barreling down on North Carolina, and is expected to be a Category 4 monster when it arrives this weekend. 

Once it’s finished with North Carolina, it could make its way up the coast to New York City, which is not well situated to deal with such a storm.  Heavy rain and flooding are expected to pose the biggest challenges, with some forecasts anticipating up to 12 inches of rain in the city.  From the New York Post:

Hurricane Irene will likely wallop the city and Long Island with winds of up to 50 mph and 4 to 8 inches of rain this weekend.

Weather watchers nudged her track a bit farther east yesterday afternoon, predicting that Irene’s eye — the center of the storm — will pass over Montauk, bringing winds between 90 and 110 mph.

Heavy rainfall is expected to start after midnight Saturday night and last until Sunday evening. reported that Irene could be a “once-in-50-year” hurricane for the Northeast, where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday his city was taking the storm very seriously.

The International Business Times explains this could be especially rough on the subway system:

Every New Yorker has seen how messy subway stations get in heavy rain: dirty puddles form on the platforms, water streams from openings in the ceiling onto the tracks, and trains are frequently delayed. Now imagine even heavier rain, plus a storm surge that sent water from the rivers and harbors crashing into the stations through the stairwells, ceilings and tunnels.

It would not even take a worst-case scenario to bring the entire New York City public transportation system to a standstill. In the short term, this would eliminate any chance of last-minute evacuations; in the long term, it could extend the economic damage of a hurricane even beyond when office buildings reopened. If the subways were flooded with salt water rather than just rainwater, the salt “would corrode the switches and cripple the system for months or years, and disable much of the communications infrastructure in Lower Manhattan,” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 based on an interview with Nicholas Coch, a coastal geology professor at Queens College.

Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground fears Irene is “a potential multi-billion dollar disaster for New England and the mid-Atlantic:

Though it is still possible the core of Irene will miss the U.S., the current NHC official forecast would mean that Irene would bring destructive flash flooding, significant beach damage, and widespread power outages due to tree damage along the entire U.S. coast from North Carolina to Maine, costing several billion dollars. If Irene ends up skirting the Outer Banks of North Carolina and not significantly weakening, then plowing through the mid-Atlantic and New England states as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, it could become one of the ten most damaging hurricanes in history. 

States of emergency have been declared in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina.  Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey warned that “from a flooding perspective, this could be a hundred-year event.”  Residents of low-lying areas in the hurricane’s path have been advised to evacuate.  CNN reports that mandatory evacuations are under way in North Carolina, while Navy vessels have been put out to sea in advance of the storm.

Hurricanes are huge, and they have a knack for making last-minute course corrections and intensity shifts right before landfall.  If you’re in the path of Hurricane Irene, take all due precautions.  Plan for the worst, and gently chide yourself for over-reacting later.

Update: As mentioned in the comments, there’s been some good news since this article was originally written, and the storm has weakened a bit.  Tomorrow’s weather is always subject to change, although billions of dollars have been spent on the assumption that the climate in 2112 can be predicted with perfect accuracy.

It would be wise to monitor this storm carefully if you’re in any of the potentially affected areas.  If you calmly take sensible precautions that later turn out to have been excessive, nobody will ever hold it against you.