Since I mentioned it during my talk with the HSES students on Tuesday, I figured I'd very quickly point out one of the more interesting climatic disasters in New York City history: the 1938 "Long Island Express" hurricane. From the very lovely history site New York Traveler comes this excerpt from an account by 18-year-old Arthur D. Raynor of Westhampton:
If you had already been advised that Long Island was close to perfection on earth, that we had no worries about floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or other natural disasters that had befallen other unfortunate parts of the earth, the chances are pretty good that you could have gotten fooled on the 21st day of September, 1938.
Only a few months before, the local theater had shown a saga called “Typhoon,” and among the things I had gotten out of that was an observation by one of the characters in the movie that “the birds were acting peculiarly.” They were portrayed (how do you get a flock of wild birds to act?) as being excited, nervous, anxious and so forth. Not being an avid bird watcher, I couldn’t really tell if our birds were doing the same thing that day around lunch time, but it was close enough for me to mention it to my Grandmother, and her Mother, a visitor at the time. And you could have bet money on the reply. “One thing you never have to worry about on Long Island is floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and all those other things everybody not smart enough to live here worry about.”The hurricane was a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale when it made landfall (after peaking at Cat 5 out to sea) and devastated much of eastern Long Island and the south New England coast. Wind damage in New York City wasn't extreme but flooding was (viz the photo above). Of course, this wasn't the only major hurricane to hit New York City; the 1893 Hog Island Hurricane, for example, is so named because it washed away most of Hog Island in between Long Island and Long Beach.
More generally, this is a tidy, local, little example of one of the fundamental problems with disasters, namely that we often generalize about dangerous events over a period of time (e.g., the lifespan of a high school student) much shorter than the average amount of time between those events. New York City seems from casual remembrance to be at no serious risk from hurricanes, but looking at past history indicates that we will surely get hit by a big one sometime sooner or later. And it's certainly better to accept that risk and prepare for it than otherwise.