Although Irene lost its greatest ferocity by the time it reached New York City this morning, weakening to tropical storm status just before its arrival, it will still go down in history as one of the few intense tropical cyclones ever to pass directly over New York City since instrument records began in the late 19th century.
Irene also proved that Mother Nature can, indeed, put the “city that never sleeps” into a deep, albeit temporary, slumber. With mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas, all mass transit shut down, most stores and restaurants closed, and theaters gone dark, the streets were handed over to Irene to do her worst, making for an eerie Saturday night as rainbands and lightning lashed the city.
In the end, though, Irene served more as a serious test of New York’s emergency preparedness plans than an example of what a powerful hurricane is capable of doing to this low-lying city.
Despite a high astronomical high tide coinciding with the storm’s strongest winds, coastal flooding proved problematic but not devastating, judging from news reports. At The Battery, on the southern tip of Manhattan, the tide level reached 9.5 feet, reflecting a storm surge of 4.5 feet. This was the sixth-highest level ever recorded there, just shy of the 9.6 foot tide level reached during a powerful Nor’easter in December 1992. Coastal flooding was also reported in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, as well as the other boroughs.
So while there is plenty of flooding, power outages and clean-up to deal with, things could have been much worse, as the New York Times plainly states:
Tropical Storm Irene swept through the New York City area on Sunday morning lacking anywhere near the force that had been feared, but still cutting power to more than a million people, toppling trees and flooding some parts of the city.
Though the storm packed strong winds and heavy rain, it never dealt the kind of punch that prompted city officials to order unprecedented evacuations. There were no reports of major damage to skyscrapers, and officials said the flooding appeared to be limited. In much of the city, people awoke anxious that they would see destruction out their windows, only to find a scene more typical after a major summer storm.
In the wake of Irene’s substantial but not devastating blow, Andy Revkin at DotEarth asks whether New York, which is inherently more vulnerable to storm surges as sea levels rise, will be lulled into a false sense of security by what turned out to be a moderate rather than extreme storm surge.
The Times has a gallery of high-resolution images of the storm’s impacts in the Big Apple, including a view of the rising water in lower Manhattan. The Times’ City Room blog has many more details on storm impacts in different New York neighborhoods.
Elsewhere in the Northeast
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, Irene’s tidal surge beat that of December 1992, and was approaching the record levels seen during the 1938 hurricane, according to Hartford TV meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan, via Twitter. Many reports of flooded streets were coming in from the southern shores of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts around midday today. Hanrahan reported via Twitter that police in Fairfield, Conn., were warning that the storm surge had progressed a half-mile inland in that community.
Winds at the surface stayed below hurricane force in New York City, and most areas for that matter. La Guardia Airport gusted to 67 mph, Kennedy Airport to 59 mph, and Central Park to 60 mph. These winds were strong enough to take out many tree limbs, although power outages were not as widespread as initially feared. The highest wind gust recorded in the region was 91 mph, in Sayville, N.Y., on the south shore of Long Island. East Moriches, N.Y., recorded a wind gust to 71 mph.
Tropical storm force winds were felt up the coast as well. A 72 mph gust was reported in Fairhaven, Mass., near New Bedford, and 63 mph in Falmouth, Mass. Providence, Rhode Island reported sustained winds of 64 mph early this morning, which was significantly stronger than the winds reported in the New York City metro area.
Heavy rainfall and inland flooding is a major concern right now from eastern Pennsylvania all the way up into northern New England. A Princeton, N.J., firefighter is reportedly in critical condition after a swift water rescue, with widespread flooding reported in that community. Nearly every river in northern New Jersey is forecast to be in major flood stage in the next 48 hours, with record crests predicted for many of the rivers. Because of the widespread heavy rain, similar flooding is also anticipated in New England. According to the Star-Ledger newspaper, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has expressed concerns about the integrity of several dams.
Rainfall totals ranged from three to more than 10 inches from the northern mid-Atlantic to New England. Coming on the heels of what was already an unusually wet August, Irene catapulted New York City into record territory, as August 2011 will be remembered as the wettest month of any month since instrument records began.
The same is true for Philadelphia, where tornado warnings added to the mix of threats from Hurricane Irene last night. Numerous tornado warnings were issued in New Jersey and Delaware as Irene’s outer rainbands moved through, with at least one confirmed tornado touchdown in Delaware.