insuring the shore
In 1938, when storm-watchers gave hurricanes names fit for railroad lines, the Great New England formed off Africa’s western coast, hurtled across the Atlantic and turned north, making landfall in Central Long Island.
Winds as fast as 130 miles per hour blew across the peninsula, sweeping a Westhampton movie theater out to sea, toppling the tallest building in Sag Harbor and turning Montauk into an island. In Manhattan, streets three blocks inland from the East River flooded, and the Empire State Building is said to have swayed. By the time the storm finished cutting through New England and into Canada, some 57,000 homes were destroyed, and as many as 800 lives lost.
When present-day risk experts think about the worst-case scenario for the New York region, they base their assumptions on the Great New England.
That wasn’t even a direct hit. “If you take that storm and put it on the Irene track, then you get multiples and multiples of the damages,” said Karen Clark, the chief executive officer of catastrophe risk firm Karen Clark & Co. and the mother of the catastrophe-modeling industry.
It’s been a common reaction in the days after the hurricane, or post-tropical storm, or whatever we’re calling the 1,000 mile-wide wall of wind and rain that blasted the Northeast on Monday, to blame the shocking wave of destruction on global warming.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo chimed in early and often, offering Sandy as evidence “that climate change is reality.” Bloomberg Businessweek, ever a sucker for an arresting image, shouted “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” from the cover of this week’s issue. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a more measured approach—”If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable”—but nonetheless, invoked this week’s storm and underlined climate change in explaining his endorsement of President Barack Obama for reelection.
Meanwhile, estimates for the insured costs of the storm climbed as high as $20 billion, and we thought it would be worth hearing what the insurance industry had to say. After all, if the waters rise, the coastlines erode and changing weather patterns increase the frequency of tropical storms, insurance companies are going to incur large costs making good on property loss.
But when The Observer called the experts who build the sophisticated models that the insurance industry uses to assess risk, they told us that global warning wasn’t the first factor responsible for the damage caused by Sandy and other recent storms. Instead, it’s where we’ve built our homes.