In May of 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina, I wrote an article that nobody noticed. It was entitled “Thinking Big About Hurricanes: It’s Time to Get Serious About Saving New Orleans .” In it, I talked about how devastating a strong hurricane landfall could be to my home city:
Afterwards, the article was passed around furiously  and I was hailed for having some sort of deep insight. I didn’t: The danger was staggeringly obvious and I was only channeling what many experts at the time knew.
With all eyes now focused on Hurricane Irene, which threatens a series of U.S. east coast landfalls, it is time to think seriously once again about worst case scenarios—and also, about how global warming could amplify them. And no, I am not saying that Irene threatens to bring about a worst case, that global warming caused Irene, or taking any other silly reductionist position.
Rather, I’m saying that Irene focuses our attention on our serious vulnerability, and we need to seize that moment--because too often our default position is to act like nothing bad is going to happen.
There are several places in the United States, besides New Orleans, where a strong hurricane landfall could be absolutely devastating. These include the Florida Keys, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, and Houston/Galveston. But they also include some east coast locations, and chief among these is New York/Long Island.
This last is currently within the forecast cone for Irene. That’s not saying that the storm portends anything like a worst-case scenario for New York City—it seems likely to be pretty weak by then, forecast tracks often change, etc—but it still could be bad if it goes directly at Manhattan. Simply put, there is a lot of wealth and personal property along that path.
The precise impact of any storm depends upon innumerable factors that cannot be known in advance. This include the storm's size, speed, angle of approach, and much else. So I am not forecasting anything about Irene--I'm just saying it's time to look at worst cases in general.
What's the worst case for New York City, as the world warms and sea levels rise? Here's what I wrote in my 2007 book Storm World:
We live in a presentist country that rarely pays attention to long term risks or worst case scenarios, until it is too late. That’s what happened to poor New Orleans—and it’s only a matter of time until it happens somewhere else. When it comes to hurricane disasters in particular, rising sea levels make the risk steadily worse over time, whether or not hurricanes themselves get much stronger.
So what are our major coastal cities doing to protect themselves? That’s the question we should all be asking right now.