GOWANUS—The surge of sewer water, toxic sludge and "Brooklyn whitefish" (aka condoms) stopped one short block away from my house back on the long night of October 29, 2012. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy coming ashore at high tide, my little brick rowhouse in this late industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn was only spared inundation by the flooding of the basements of my neighbors—and the fact that Sandy did not bring a lot of rain at the same time as the superstorm brought a seawater surge. In the two years since, the neighborhood has recovered and gained a Whole Foods, the self-proclaimed, greenest supermarket in New York State, complete with vertical mini-wind turbines and photovoltaic sunshades for the parking lot, built at the same spot where I watched that transgression of canal water while being pelted by rain that felt more like sand.
With any luck, New York City will be spared a direct hit from a hurricane this season, particularly since a developing El Nino in the Pacific Ocean is likely to put a damper on tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic. As it stands, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting between eight and 13 tropical storms in the Atlantic in the summer of 2014, three to six of which will go on to become hurricanes, and one or two of which might develop into very strong tropical cyclones, with winds in excess of 180 kilometers-per-hour. "El Nino continues to develop and show what it's true strength will be," said Katherine Sullivan, NOAA administrator and the first American woman to walk in space at a briefing at New York City's Office of Emergency Management to announce the hurricane season forecast, a location not far from my Gowanus home and not far above the DUMBO neighborhood that also disappeared underwater during Hurricane Sandy's storm surge. "El Nino suppresses hurricane activity by increasing wind shear which reduces growth."
In other words, NOAA won't make a prediction about the strength of El Nino—"there is no forecast on how strong we expect [El Nino] to be," said lead hurricane forecaster Gerry Bell in response to a question from Scientific American about the climate pattern that starts with a band of warm water in the Pacific Ocean and has a host of weather impacts. But the agency is relying on the existence of El Nino to forecast a quiescent hurricane season.
NOAA's briefing took place in the cavernous command center for New York City's Office of Emergency Management, the bunker where city agencies come together to plan the response to a disaster like Superstorm Sandy. There are clocks on the walls with the time in London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Tokyo, and banks of desks with computers and nameplates, as if this was the trading floor of some investment bank, though the only currency here is evacuation warnings and infrastructure status updates.
Some of the desks are in fact dedicated to banks, though. The one I occupy for the briefing is designated for the representative from the New York State insurers and sits in the middle of the row labeled "private sector." The other side of the room, past the catwalk hovering over a raised oval command center, is dedicated to transportation, public safety and health and medical. Even the city's Parks Department has a slot and one has to wonder what kind of bureaucratic infighting surrounds the seat assignments. Even NOAA's local representative—the National Weather Service meteorologist Gary Conte—has his own bunk somewhere in the three-story command center. "When bad things happen in New York City and lots of agencies are going to respond," explained Jospeh Bruno, commissioner for the NYC OEM, "it's what we live in."
Separated by a glass wall from the scrum of journalists gathered here for the briefing sits the "watch command," where officials decked out in cop-like blue NYC OEM uniforms are tasked with watching rows of televisions and computer monitors. Server racks with snaking orange wires host the computers that feed information to these guardians of Gotham. Much of what they are watching even on this slow day is the weather, including any potential hurricane from the moment it blows off the continent of Africa.
We are currently in the midst of an active few decades in Atlantic hurricane activity. Sea surface temperatures—the basic fuel of a tropical cyclone—have been above average since the 1990s. In fact, 2014 is the first year the Atlantic Ocean has boasted average sea surface temperatures in nearly two decades. "You saw the winter we had," said NOAA's Bell, who helped develop this year's forecast.
With less fuel and, most likely, more resistance from the atmospheric circumstances created by an El Nino in the Pacific—stronger trade winds and also more winds high in the atmosphere to rip apart any tropical cyclone as it tries to form—the outlook is good for avoiding hurricanes this year, much as 2013 saw only two storms reach hurricane intensity despite a forecast for an active year from NOAA. Yes, if this year's El Nino proves strong, then it may dampen hurricane activity to the lowest end of NOAA's range but, if that climate pattern fizzles, then more hurricanes can be expected.
Regardless, NOAA has invested in improved computer models for better forecasts—now even capable of assimilating the radar data gathered by hurricane hunter aircraft. And communities up and down the East Coast of North America as well as off the Gulf of Mexico will have a new warning to take into account as well—a visual overlay of land areas where a given tropical storm's surge of water may penetrate and how high above land that water will get—will be delivered every six hours during the storm's duration. The red, orange and yellow flood zones are meant to serve as a visual warning of the kind of wetting your little brick townhouse might endure. That kind of storm surge warning might have helped me spend less time out in the rain monitoring flood waters and more time at home battening down the hatches or, in the face of a storm even worse than Sandy, evacuating. Plus, storm surge is only going to get worse in years to come as sea levels continue to rise thanks to climate change. "Storm surge can be seriously deadly," explained Holly Bamford, NOAA's National Ocean Service assistant administrator. "It takes just six inches of fast-moving water to knock over a full-grown adult."
Today, almost 126 million Americans live near the nation's coasts and face such hurricane risks, and even communities further inland can be devastated by a tropical storm—like Vermont and upstate New York in 2011 after flooding from Hurricane Irene. "The most devastated state [Vermont] from Hurricane Irene did not have a [ocean] coastline," noted Joe Nimmich, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
As Hurricane Sandy—or any other storm in the list of retired hurricane names—proved, it only takes one tropical cyclone to ruin a year. In 1992, the hurricane season was also predicted to be below average—and was, but for Hurricane Andrew, which roared ashore in Florida as the most powerful kind of tropical cyclone and caused nearly $25 billion in damages. Or, as Sullivan put it, "it only takes one destructive storm to make for a very bad season."