How a Category 5 hurricane could wipe out New York City for good
“The bridges in and out of Manhattan are flooded” while boat rides to safety go to the highest bidder in author Stephen Marche’s terrifying forecast of the lasting damage a Category 5 hurricane would do to the Big Apple.NY Post photo composite
The hurricane that destroys New York City happens in a single night.
Red Hook, “the most vulnerable New York neighborhood, no longer exists,” writes Stephen Marche in his new book, “The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future” (Simon & Schuster), out Tuesday. “Several witnesses report seeing a baby floating in a stroller.”
Even when the water starts to recede, the damage is unprecedented.
“Prospect Park isn’t Prospect Park anymore,” continues Marche. “The trees have tumbled. Whole families are curled up inside the sweep of horizontal branches. People are sleeping under the bushes, in a daze of upended lives.”
The bridges in and out of Manhattan are flooded, as are the airports. Soon, most of New York is underwater, and the power goes out across the city. The governor calls in the National Guard, and 100,000 soldiers make their way into downtown Manhattan.
Anybody with a boat — from New England fishing vessels to motorboats that probably shouldn’t be on open water — offers a ride to safety starting at $5,000 per seat.
“A gentlemanly 50-year-old strides onto one of the larger skiffs, tapping his phone, as if paying for a latte at Starbucks.”
It’s a chilling hypothetical, like something out of a “Twilight Zone” episode. But it could really happen, argues Marche, who describes the devastation caused by an imaginary Category 5 hurricane called Muriel to explain his theory.
Over the last 40 years, “Category 5 hurricanes have increased by 300 percent globally,” he writes. And superstorms on the Eastern Seaboard are no longer a rarity.
“The one thing there is reasonable consensus on, at least for hurricane activity for the US, is overall an increase in the frequency and intensity of Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes,” Peter Sousounis, the director of climate change research at AIR Worldwide, says in the book.
And the biggest sitting target is New York, because Sousounis says, “It’s flat.”
Vivek Shandas, director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University in Portland, Ore., also points to New York as being “incredibly high on the list of vulnerable cities.” She notes that it’s been a disaster waiting to happen since the 18th century, thanks to its questionable infrastructure created long before hurricanes were a real concern.
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a warning shot. And it wasn’t even technically a hurricane when it hit New York. Dubbed a “superstorm,” Sandy was a combination tropical storm and nor’easter. After it decimated eight tunnels and stranded millions of commuters between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, the recovery effort cost a staggering $32.8 billion.
Since then, measures have been adopted to protect the city against a similar climate event. When the subway flooded after Sandy, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent $4.5 billion on new technology, like “Flex-Gates,” a retractable stairwell cover, and other flood protection measures.
But it was designed with a storm like Hurricane Sandy in mind. Though not the strongest — a 1938 New England hurricane, which struck Long Island as a Category 3, was the deadliest, killing more than 60 people — Sandy sparked fears of what could come next.
“What would a Category 5 storm with an extra half a foot of sea surge do?” asks Marche.
Some attempts have been made to prepare for the unimaginable. The $119 billion Greater Manhattan Seawall, which would embrace the city “like the arms of a protective father,” Marche writes, was first conceived after Sandy to essentially “close the gates at the East Rockaway Barrier, the Jones Inlet Barrier, and the East River Barrier.” But the Trump administration killed that plan in February 2020. Another plan by the de Blasio administration to completely demolish the city’s East River Park and raise the entire area on eight feet (and more than a million tons) of fill has been stalled by activists and residents, who claim the city didn’t consult them on the plans.
‘People have no clue what this experience is. I do. And I think it will happen again.’SI native John Toto, who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy
“It doesn’t mean that the plan is not a good plan,” Frank Avila-Goldman, a member of a local resident council that consulted the city on the scheme, told NY1. But “how it came about refuted trust.”
Meanwhile, the city remains vulnerable to major superstorms. Just this year, Hurricane Ida, which hit New York and New Jersey as a tropical storm, caused flash floods that killed 18 people and shut down most of the city’s public transportation.
John Toto, whose family ran the Joe and John Toto’s Italian family restaurant on Staten Island since the early ’80s, is still suffering from the devastation caused by Sandy. When that storm hit, the water “reached his knees” and his restaurant became “unmoored from its foundations,” he tells Marche. It was the beginning of the end for his family business.
“It was like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” he told the author. “My entire existence got turned upside down.”
Toto reopened a new place on Staten Island, but he put a painting on the wall, a mural of waves crashing down during Sandy.
“I wanted them to put that there as a reminder,” Toto says. “People have no clue what this experience is. I do. And I do think it will happen again.”
When the next big storm happens, Shandas said the biggest danger is our lack of preparedness.
“What failure means is a cascading failure of systems,” Shandas says. “Like the sewer systems can no longer handle the water coming in and the investment in the sewer system is no longer what the city can handle.”
Just like with every disaster New York has faced in the past, such as 9/11, we want to imagine the city will bounce back. As Marche points out, “After the Second World War, Germany and Japan rebuilt Berlin and Tokyo. After the earthquake of 1755, the Portuguese rebuilt Lisbon.”
But the difference is, both of those cities could believe their biggest challenges were behind them. “If New York is forever more vulnerable to hurricanes, why rebuild it?” Marche writes. “How to rebuild it? The city and state and the federal government face an insuperable challenge, tasked with the almost incalculable cost of rebuilding the bulk of New York City’s infrastructure for an unpredictable future.”
“The most likely scenario is that those with enough resources will flee, leaving behind the poor and vulnerable,” writes Marche.
And how do you rebuild a city when everybody is gone, escaping the flood waters for a safer existence? New York can ostensibly survive anything, but can it survive when the bulk of its population has paid for a boat to shuttle them to safety?
Rebuilding a city takes money. “And how could they raise the money when the people have fled?” Marche asks. “Who is going to pay the taxes?”
And yet there is hope for the future. At a press conference last October, Jainey Bavishi, who directs the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resilience, announced that the city would be investing $1.45 billion in a floodgate along Lower Manhattan, 2.5 miles long and 16.5 feet high, that is “built to be adaptable.”
“If the projections for sea-level rise and storm surge get worse than what we believe they are now, we can actually add elevation to the wall to add further protection,” Bavishi said.
In other words, despite past plans being stymied, the city is still looking forward, trying to figure out how to fortify itself against The Big One — not just the hurricane threat we know, but the threat we don’t yet know.
Although the project won’t be completed until 2026, it’s a step in the right direction. And proof that, as Marche writes, even the worst-case scenario is not “beyond the capacity of Americans to solve.”