NY warned to prepare for hurricane like Katrina
Associated Press | September 19, 2005
By Claudia Parsons
Manhattan could be flooded and New York could suffer as much damage as New Orleans if it were hit by a catastrophic hurricane like one that passed just north of the city in 1938, experts warned on Monday.
"Major hurricanes are not limited to the Gulf Coast and Florida," said James Lee Witt, who was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 to 2000 in the Clinton administration.
He was speaking at the launch of a campaign to improve preparation for disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 883 people when it slammed into Louisiana and neighboring states last month with 140 mile-per-hour (224 kph) winds and a 30-foot (nine-metre) storm surge.
The ProtectingNewYork.org coalition, which includes insurance companies, will work to create a catastrophe fund like those already in place in Florida and California that would kick in if damage from a natural disaster, accident or attack reached a certain threshold, Witt said.
The former FEMA chief, whose consulting firm lobbies for Allstate Insurance Co., was asked by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to advise on relief efforts after Katrina.
Witt said that the 1938 "Long Island Express" hurricane missed Manhattan by only 55 miles, yet caused damage worth over $300 million and killed 700 people. "A similar storm today could cause damages in the tens of billions of dollars," according to a factsheet handed out by the organization.
Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane. The 1938 hurricane slammed Long Island and New England with winds of 121 mph (194 kph) and peak gusts of 183 mph (293 kph).
Witt said the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center cost some $30 billion and experts estimated that another spectacular attack could cause damages exceeding $250 billion, perhaps more if it involved a nuclear facility or nuclear device.
NEW YORK DISASTER
"You like to think in modern times that these events can't happen," said Cherie Burns, author of "The Great Hurricane: 1938," published in July by Atlantic Monthly Press.
She said the 1938 hurricane was especially devastating because there was no warning, whereas modern technology meant that forecasting was much easier so people could be evacuated.
Still, Burns said, the impact of a major storm could be enormous. "A surge of 12 or 13 feet might really put water right in downtown Manhattan," she said.
The plan would be to use a portion of property insurance premiums to create the fund, which would enjoy tax-free growth. Witt said no tax dollars would go to the fund, and insurance companies would not be able to dip into the special fund for any purpose other than paying claims from catastrophes that exceed a threshold to be determined.
"New York has a very high population. If there was an event in New York the costs would be astronomical," he said.
Witt said FEMA's problems handling Katrina in recent weeks reinforced concerns he expressed to Congress in March 2004 that the agency's ability to respond had been damaged by putting it under the control of the Department of Homeland Security.
"My hope is they will look at this seriously and put FEMA back as an independent agency with the position at cabinet level that I had," he said. "Whenever you take the leadership and take the resources and funding out of an agency that has the role and responsibility that FEMA has ... then it's difficult to be able to respond."