It was 70 years ago, on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 21, 1938, that one of the most terrifying and destructive hurricanes to hit the mid-Atlantic skirted along the New Jersey coastline, made landfall in New York, turned north and left a trail of death and destruction all the way to Boston. 700 people were killed; 63,000 were left homeless. The geography of Long Island was forever changed. New Jersey’s Long Beach Island was buffeted by howling winds and churning seas.
The Great Hurricane of 1938, also known as the “Long Island Express” destroyed 4,300 homes and damaged tens of thousands of others; 20,000 miles of power and telephone lines were downed and 23,000 automobiles were ruined.
Another storm, just as powerful but potentially ever so more damaging, will make landfall in New Jersey or New York. The likely consequences are frightening.
Hurricane modelers using the aptly named SLOSH program (Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes) have predicted that a category 3 hurricane making landfall in Asbury Park, NJ, would put Newark Liberty Airport under water. Lands west of the Garden State Parkway would be flooded; damages would be wreaked on urban and suburban communities throughout New Jersey’s most populous counties.
Using the same SLOSH program, forecasters have predicted that a category 4 hurricane hitting Long Island would put JFK Airport under 20 feet of water. Sea water would rush through the tunnels that connect New York City’s boroughs and pour into the subways throughout the area. Flooding would engulf lower Manhattan as far uptown as City Hall.
As legislators in New York and New Jersey, we have a choice. We can pretend that the next massive storm – the “Big One” – will never come.
Or we can assume a leadership position, recognize the threat, and forge a solution that prepares our families and communities before catastrophe strikes, protects them when disaster is upon them, and assures them that the resources are available to rebuild, repair and recover in the aftermath of a massive natural event.
The only approach that can adequately address the threat we face is a comprehensive and integrated program that works before, during and after a catastrophic event occurs.
We have both introduced legislation in our respective states that would meet these goals by establishing privately financed state catastrophe funds. The deposits and interest earnings of the insurer revenues that are placed in the fund would be tax free, like an IRA, and would grow year after year.
Another massive hurricane will indeed hit New Jersey and New York. As the first responder groups say, “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but only a question of ‘when’.”
Without question, the time to focus our efforts is now, before the next catastrophe strikes.
Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, is the Majority Leader of the New Jersey State Senate.
Robert K. Sweeney, also a Democrat, is a member of the New York Assembly. They are not related.