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The 1821 Norfolk-Long Island Hurricane: The East Coast's $100 billion event

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Tuesday, 6 January 2015: 2:30 PM
128AB (Phoenix Convention Center - West and North Buildings)
Megan E. Linkin, Swiss Re America Holding Corporation, Armonk, NY

Hurricane Sandy, with its unique track, 1,000 mile wide wind field and low central pressure, pushed record breaking storm surge into the New York and New Jersey coasts, destroying businesses, homes and lives in a short 24 hour period. But for all the devastation and damage that Hurricane Sandy brought, its intensity at landfall, measured by 1-minute maximum sustained winds, was equivalent to a minimal Category 1 hurricane. Other events in recent years (Irene, Isabel, Gloria, Bob), while significant, weakened prior to landfall, coming onshore as either Category 1 or Category 2 hurricanes, and not the major hurricanes originally anticipated and feared.

History, however, shows us that we may not always be as fortunate. The 1821 hurricane, commonly referred to as the Norfolk Long Island hurricane, roared through the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States in early September, passing over or near major cities and tourism regions such as the Outer Banks, Norfolk, Cape May and New York City. Coastal communities in North Carolina were washed away, ships in Norfolk, VA were pushed ashore and the Delaware Bay flooded Cape May, NJ. On eastern Long Island, the aftermath was described as, "the most awful and desolating ever experienced." The hurricane was a devastating event for the expanse of Northeast United States, with communities, farms and churches laid in ruins from North Carolina to New Hampshire. The hurricane is notable not only for its strength, but its contribution to science; it is the storm that led to the discovery that in the Northern Hemisphere, these weather systems rotate in a counterclockwise direction.

With all existing documentation around the 1821 hurricane referring to a catastrophic, devastating event, and with today's models we can reconstruct a track for this hurricane to understand how it moved up coast, along with its wind field and storm surge field to determine what the loss potential is if the 1821 hurricane recurred today.

Using Swiss Re's proprietary tropical cyclone model, a deterministic wind field and storm surge analogs are developed for the 1821 hurricane. The wind footprint calculated for the 1821 hurricane results in a large area of the Eastern Seaboard being affected by powerful winds and wind gusts; in parts of coastal North Carolina, the wind gusts are in excess of 150 mph, with wind gusts up to 130 mph reaching as far north as Connecticut. Storm surge values for the analog hurricanes range from 11 13 feet at The Battery, and up to 25 feet in Atlantic City, NJ.

With trillions of dollars of residential, commercial and automotive exposure currently in the path of such a storm, the loss potential of the 1821 Norfolk-Long Island hurricane exceeds economic losses from other notable East Coast storms, including the 1938 Long Island Express and Hurricane Sandy. Physical economic losses are calculated to be in the range of USD 100 billion; actual economic losses, which include the intangibles, such as lost tax revenue and changes in asset values, are closer to USD 150 billion.

It is imperative that we, as a nation and a society, look into the past to plan for the future, especially peering through the veil of climate change. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy served as harsh reminders that the Eastern Seaboard, particularly the Northeast US, is not immune to hurricane strikes. A recurrence of the 1821 Norfolk Long Island hurricane would be a paradigm shifter, severely and negatively impacting the economy and altering the culture of the oldest part of the United States going forward. Comprehending the potential consequences of historical storms today will help both improve our understanding of the "worst case event," and motivate those in coastal areas to take the necessary steps to prepare for all storms which are possible, even those beyond our current generations' memories.