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The Geography of Hurricane Sandy

How Geography Impacted Damage From Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast

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Hurricane Sandy

In this GOES satellite image, Hurricane Sandy churns off the East Coast on October 28, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Hurricane Sandy's historical destruction to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States began with its landfall on October 29, 2012, and continued for nearly a week's time, across a dozen states, which resulted in billions of dollars of cumulative damage. The widespread effects led to federal declarations of disaster in the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and New Hampshire.

Several geographical implications, both physical and cultural, were perhaps the main culprits in causing the destruction to each of these states. Hurricane Sandy is the only category one hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale to list among the top five costliest Atlantic hurricanes in United States history. However, Sandy's size in diameter was the largest ever recorded among Atlantic storms and it therefore affected a much larger geographic area. Below we will cite many physical and cultural geographical characteristics of different communities that influenced the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

The New York Bight: Staten Island and the New York City Borough Damage

Staten Island is one of New York City's five boroughs and it is the least populated among the other boroughs (The Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn). Staten Island's unique geography made it extremely vulnerable to Hurricane Sandy's storm surge and consequently one of the more damaged areas throughout the storm's path. The New York Bight is an extraordinary geographical landform of the eastern seaboard that approximately extends from the eastern tip of Long Island to the southern tip of New Jersey. In geography, a bight is a significant curvature or bend along a coastal area. The coastline of the New York Bight forms nearly a 90-degree angle at the mouth of the Hudson River where the borough of Staten Island is located. It forms the area of Raritan Bay as well as the New York Harbor.

This extreme bend in the coastal landform is what makes Staten Island, as well as New York City and New Jersey, vulnerable to the storm surge and flooding of a Hurricane making landfall to the south. This is because the eastern-side of a hurricane, with a counterclockwise circulation, pushes the seawater from east to west. Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Atlantic City, south of the mouth of the Hudson River, and south of the 90-degree, perpendicular intersection.

The eastern-side of Hurricane Sandy entered the Hudson River and pushed water from the east to the west into the area where the land makes a 90-degree angle. The water that pushed into this area had nowhere to go but into the communities along this 90-degree bend. Staten Island is positioned at the head of this 90-degree bend and was overcome by storm surge on nearly all sides of the island. Across the mouth of the Hudson lies Battery Park on the southern tip of the borough of Manhattan. The movement of the storm surge breached the walls of Battery Park and poured into southern Manhattan. Underground, below this area of Manhattan, are numerous forms of transportation infrastructure linked through tunnels. These tunnels filled with Hurricane Sandy's storm surge and dismantled nodes of transportation including rails and roads.

Staten Island and the nearby boroughs are built among thousands of acres of tidal wetlands. These natural phenomenon provide numerous ecological benefits, especially in protecting coastal areas from flooding. The wetlands act like sponges and soak up the excess water from rising seas to protect the inland area. Unfortunately, the development of the New York City area throughout the past century has destroyed much of these natural barriers. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has concluded that Jamaica Bay lost more than 1800 acres of wetlands between 1924 and 1994 and it measured an average loss of wetlands at 44 acres per year as of 1999.

Atlantic City Landfall: A Direct Hit

Atlantic City lies on Absecon Island, a barrier island with an ecological purpose of protecting the mainland from rising waters of storm events and occasional swells. The barrier island of Atlantic City is highly vulnerable to storms such as Hurricane Sandy. The north and east side of the island, near Abescon Inlet, received a greater amount of damage because of its exposure in position to rising waters from both the Atlantic Ocean waters and the inlet-bay waters.

Homes throughout Atlantic City experienced extensive flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Storm surge pushed water past the boardwalk of Atlantic City and into residential districts where homes were not constructed high enough off the ground to avoid the rising water. Many of Atlantic City's homes were constructed during the boom of the early 20th century and builders did not worry about the possibility of widespread flooding. Today, nearly 25 percent of existing homes were built prior to 1939 and nearly another 50 percent were built between 1940 and 1979. The age of these homes, and the materials used in construction, were not built to withstand swift movement of water and high wind speeds. The Atlantic City Boardwalk and Steel Pier were hardly damaged in the storm. In recent years, local government approved structural renovations to protect the boardwalk and pier from hurricane storm surge events. The dissimilarities between damage was largely due to the age of the city's infrastructure.

Hoboken, New Jersey

Hoboken, New Jersey, was perhaps one of the most seriously affected areas of disaster. Hoboken is located in Bergen County on the west bank of the Hudson River, across from New York City's Greenwich Village and northeast of Jersey City. Its geographic position on the western bank of the Hudson River in the area of the New York Bight made it prone to storm surge from a counter-clockwise rotating hurricane. Areas throughout Hoboken lie below sea level or at sea level because the two-mile geographic area was once an island surrounded by the Hudson River. The movement of landforms created changes in sea levels where the town was built. Hoboken's position to Hurricane Sandy's landfall made for a worst-case scenario because it experienced counter-clockwise winds and surge that pushed water over the banks of the Hudson River directly into Hoboken.

Hoboken regularly experiences flooding and had recently constructed a new flood pump; a long needed upgrade to the city's former aging pump. However, the single flood pump was not enough power to pump the floodwaters that Sandy caused. The flooding damaged homes, businesses, and transportation structures throughout the city. More than 45% of Hoboken's occupied housing stock was built prior to 1939 and the aged structures were easily removed from their foundations under the swift moving floodwaters. Hoboken is also known for its transportation infrastructure and it boasts some of the highest public transportation use throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the floodwaters in Hoboken entered these systems and destroyed underground electrical systems, rail tracks, and trains. The old underground tunnels exposed a need for transportation infrastructure to be upgraded with watertight closures, ventilation systems, or other flood prevention actions.

The angle of Hurricane Sandy's landfall and the geographical positioning of the landforms in Sandy's path contributed to widespread destruction in the United States northeast corridor. The aging infrastructure throughout New York and New Jersey led to costly bills needed to rebuild transportation routes, power lines, and homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The New York Bight has created a geographical precedence for the New York and New Jersey area when it is put in the path of Mother Nature's destruction.

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