Escape from New York: If We Get Level 3 Storm, A Million Evacuees

A 1995 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study—now being revised—mapped out a frightening scenario about what would happen if a Category 3 hurricane hit New York:

“Not only could building occupants be endangered, but debris falling onto the streets from high above could create an extreme hazard to pedestrians. As high winds begin to damage the upper floors of buildings and pedestrians flee street level sidewalks, many will probably turn to subway or PATH stations and their connecting walkways for shelter. Even if an entrance or surface is above potential flood levels, hurricane surge could quickly fill tunnels below through openings at other locations; they are not safe shelters from severe extratropical storms or hurricanes.”

While New York isn’t a common hurricane target, weather experts have determined that northern hurricanes move faster than southern ones do and create storm surges—the welling of the sea that forms in the hurricane’s eye—as high as 30 feet. “A 3 hitting New York is like a 4 hitting Florida,” said Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College. “Northern hurricanes are infrequent, but they are disastrous.”

City officials have said they’re ready for an emergency, including a Category 3 or 4 hurricane. But they also admit that they can only be as prepared as the city’s eight million residents are.

For the most part, New Yorkers won’t need to do much but go home and break open the canned beans and bottled water. But a million New Yorkers live near enough to the water, and close enough to sea level, that they will need to go to higher ground.

And how many of those New Yorkers know who they are? And do the rest of us have enough canned beans and bottled water to make it through three days? (The rule of thumb: one gallon of water per adult per day.)

Democratic Mayoral candidates have taken to pounding Mayor Michael Bloomberg on this front, blaming him for the public’s failure to plan ahead. Meanwhile, a Republican City Council candidate, Josh Yablon, released a poll last week that found 50 percent of New Yorkers feel no more prepared than they did four years ago.

In response, a public-safety official sent The Observer a poll conducted this summer by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. But instead of disputing Mr. Yablon’s survey—which was based on a mere 150 responses or so—the Marist poll, commissioned by the city’s Office of Emergency Management, oddly confirmed many of the same things: 51 percent of New Yorkers said they do not feel they’re prepared for an emergency.

Even more surprising is how cavalier the Marist poll finds New Yorkers to be: a fifth of respondents said they didn’t have time to prepare for an emergency; another fifth said they didn’t feel at risk; and 9 percent said they didn’t think it helped to prepare.

“If you were to stop New Yorkers on the street and ask them ‘What would you do in an emergency?’, X number of people would say, ‘If there was electricity, I would go on the Internet and see what you’re supposed to do, or I would turn on the radio or television,’” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from the East Side.

If only there were electricity.

A word to the wise: Stay away from the South Ferry station on the No. 1 line. It’s just about 10 feet above sea level, according to Allan McDuffie, a hurricane-study manager at the Army Corps of Engineers.

Also, stay away from buildings under construction; they and poorly maintained structures are the most likely to cause damage. According to James Colgate, executive architect at the Department of Buildings, the windows in buildings constructed since 1968 should be able to withstand winds of at least 108 miles an hour, which is a high Category 2 hurricane. Older buildings may be just as strong because they often used redundant structural systems, he added.

The Office of Emergency Management has distributed two million copies, in several languages, of a booklet called Ready New York, which outlines steps for all sorts of emergencies. The O.E.M.’s more specific hurricane guide—which includes a map of evacuation zones—was revised about a year ago; some 100,000 copies have been distributed since then. While distribution has been focused in the evacuation zones, officials don’t know what percentage of households near the coast have a copy. In any case, given that one million people live in those areas, there have to be many who don’t have one.

There are evacuation zones in all five boroughs, in rich areas and poor ones: Battery Park City, East Harlem, Stuyvesant Town, Coney Island, the West Village, Red Hook, the Rockaways—oh, don’t even think about the Rockaways; there won’t be much left to think about if a Category 2 comes through.

Residents of these neighborhoods can go to the nearest of 23 reception centers and then get shipped off to a shelter for the night—often meaning a public school. The city expects that about three out of every four evacuees will find friends or family to stay with: The shelter system can accommodate 250,000, although it could be expanded to fit 500,000 or even more. All shelters currently have a three-day supply of food, and most have back-up generators or have easy access to them.

“People need to listen to us if we say a hurricane is coming,” said Edward Gabriel, deputy commissioner for planning and preparedness at the Office of Emergency Management. “I think New York City residents will. We probably have the best plan in the country. We’ll get the word out, but the public has to take us seriously.”

But Mr. Coch, the Queens College geology professor, isn’t so sure. “What we are going to see is a significant rise in deaths, because New Yorkers are very independent and they thrive on risk. There are going to be those who will try to see if they can ride it out, others who don’t think it will be that serious.”

Mayor Bloomberg last week said that the city wouldn’t hesitate to force people to evacuate their homes if they’re in danger. “Hopefully, we will go to a judge and the judge will give us a court order right away,” he said at a news conference. “We have a standing court order that permits us to take homeless people off the streets when it gets below 32 degrees.”

But getting such a court order to remove people from their private property may prove more difficult. Officials in New Orleans announced that they would start mandatory evacuations on Sept. 7, but press accounts note that they haven’t yet forced people out of their homes.

The transit system will be the key to getting people out of harm’s way before the storm—extra subways and buses will be running—but expect extensive devastation afterwards. One doesn’t need to go very far back to find instances when the transportation infrastructure has been incapacitated by far lesser forces. Just last fall, Tropical Storm Frances flooded several subway lines while, in 1992, a storm not even strong enough to warrant a name shut down PATH for 10 days. In 1999, Tropical Storm Floyd caused major delays at the Port Authority bus terminal as people fleeing work arrived in the early afternoon, only to find that incoming buses couldn’t navigate the sodden New Jersey roads.

An evacuation of the coastal hurricane zones would take between 12 and 17 hours for a Category 4 hurricane, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which means that whoever is Mayor at the time may not know for sure where a storm will land before making a decision about evacuation. “We would rather err on the side of caution,” said Deputy Commissioner Gabriel.

The official decision-making matrix calls for the Mayor to call for evacuation between 24 and 36 hours before a hurricane hits land, according to Jarrod Bernstein, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management. But Allan McDuffie, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said that by that point, the Mayor might not have any idea what route the storm would take.

“Because Northeast storms are very fast-moving—the 1938 storm was moving at 60 miles per hour—it’s not going to be easy,” Mr. McDuffie said. “That would mean 24 hours before landfall, the storm would be off the coast of North Carolina.”

The Office of Emergency Management, which would act as the coordinator of the numerous departments and agencies involved, has a crisis room outfitted with 90 workstations in its headquarters. Each phone is backed up by a satellite connection, and the room itself is replicated in another undisclosed location. But it’s hard for the public to assess whether the city’s evacuation plan anticipates every possible contingency because the actual document hasn’t been released publicly. Mr. Bernstein, the department spokesman, said that making the complete plan public would create logistical problems—if people knew where the shelters were, for instance, they would go there, while emergency-planning officials want them to register at one of the 23 reception centers first. He said that several outside organizations have examined the evacuation plan and given feedback.

It’s also too early to tell what exactly New York City will learn from Katrina, though the Office of Emergency Management will send a team south in the next few weeks to investigate what went wrong. Parts of New Orleans’ situation don’t apply here: New York is blessed with higher elevation and better public transit, and it would presumably cost only $2 for anyone to get out of harm’s way. New York is also determined to stay in control as much as possible and not rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, except for reinforcements and financial relief after the storm. “We try to be as self-reliant as we can,” the Mayor said. “That’s why our experience with FEMA has been a positive one.”

Escape from New York:  If We Get Level 3 Storm, A Million Evacuees