Monday, August 29, 2011

The False Illusion Of Safety: Technology vs Nature

Some in the 21st century may have the illusion of security from nature, but it is only that - an illusion.

The recent hurricane Irene, was an unwelcome visitor in the city of New York and the American Northeast coast.  To many along the Northeast coast, hurricanes are taken seriously.  They are feared and respected.  It seems however, that in more urbanized areas of the  American East coast, there is a skepticism about their ability to destroy the way of life there.  The direction of centuries of Western outlook towards urbanization has tended to separate people from the forces of nature.

New York City is a classic example of this view.  The lifestyle of New Yorkers is largely artificial, being based on a man-made complex underground system without which, the city, as it presently runs, could not continue.  kingvidbina produced an excellent article titled, Beneath The Skin Of The Apple which discussed just what it takes to run this city from the underground infrastructure.  Any serious interruption of the workings of this vast underground infrastructures for any significant period of time would be catastrophic to New York City.  Water is not only New York's greatest asset but also its greatest threat.  The Office of Emergency Management of the City of New York has organized threats into categories.  Specifically when talking about tropical events, it lists the damage according to the categories of the hurricanes.

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The threat is very real.  In an article published by Department of Homeland Security, dated June 2009, titled, Flood-proofing New York City with storm barriers, New York's vulnerability is made clear.  There is a long term threat,
The more distant threat is the fact that climate change causes the ocean level to rise — but rise unevenly. There are two problems here: First, rather than spreading out evenly across all the oceans, water from melted Antarctic ice sheets will gather around North America and the Indian Ocean. This is bad news for the U.S. East Coast, which could bear the brunt of one of these oceanic bulges. Second, although low-lying Florida and Western Europe are often considered the most vulnerable to sea level changes, the northeast U.S. coast is particularly vulnerable because the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is susceptible to global warming...
The more immediate threat is described as well,
The dangers hurricanes pose to NYC is not that the city’s tall buildings will shake, but that the storm could send the Atlantic Ocean surging into the U.S. largest city, flooding Wall Street, subways and, densely populated neighborhoods. Today marks the start of this year’s hurricane season, and reports that some scientists and engineers are floating an ambitious solution: Barriers to choke off the surging sea and protect flood-prone areas.
Hurricane Irene hit New York City head on.  The last time this happened was in 1821.  This hurricane (they were not named yet), hist Jamaica Bay on September 3rd, very close to the time Irene hit us, very close to the same location (Coney Island).  In this case, there was no warning.  But, unlike Irene, this hurricane produced 13ft. waves.  The fact that Irene did not produce such waves is what saved Manhattan from catastrophic damage.  What did 13ft waves do to Manhattan?  It flooded lower Manhattan from Wall Street area to Canal Street.  This happened despite the fact that the hurricane hit at low tide!  Hurricane was by all reports, expected to hit Manhattan at high tide.  As Bruce Parker put it, author of the book, The Power Of The Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, And Our Guest To To Predict Disasters,
Its storm surge caused a thirteen-foot rise in the water in only an hour, flooding the lower end of Manhattan up to Canal Street.  The waters of the Hudson and the East rivers joined to cover the sidewalks of New York.  One can only imagine the destruction if it had been high tide.  Tow days earlier while to the east of Florida the hurricane had been a Category 5, but after passing over land several times, it had been reduced to maybe a Category 2 by the it hit New York City.
Rick Schwartz in his book, Hurricanes And The Middle Atlantic States, quotes an account in the New York Post, came from almost east, with all the violence and fury of a hurricane, and continued to about half past 9 last evening, throwing down chimneys, unroofing buildings, and prostrating trees in various directions.  When the gale was at its height, it presented a most awful spectacle.  The falling of slate from the roofs of buildings, and broken glas from windows, made it unsafe for anyone to venture into the streets.
As if this is not enough, an article appeared in the New York Magazine, September 18, 1995, titled, All Disaster, by Wendy Marston.  She quotes Sergeants Peter Picarillo and Louis LaPierta, who at the time were New York City's official hurricane managers.
On the screen in the sergeant's office is a map of New York in green, with water surrounding it in blue.  Picarillo and LaPietra play the worst possible scenario - a hurricane traveling at least 35 miles per hour turns inland and makes landfall near Atlantic City.  It keeps going northward, passing west of New York City.   LaPietra clicks the mouse on Category 1 hurricanes.  Sustained winds hit 95 miles per hour - more than enough to tip cars - while the water is five to eight feet above normal.  Blue nibbles away at green on the computer screen and the Rockaways, Howard Beach, Coney Island, the East Village from the river to Avenue B, the most of Battery Park vanish.  He clicks on Category 2 - winds up to 110 miles per hour and water fifteen to sixteen feet above normal.  Category 3 - winds up to 130 miles per hour and water up to 26 feet above normal.  Picarillo taps his pencils at the corner of Broadway and Canal.  "Water up to your neck," he says solemnly.  In fact, all of Manhattan south of City Hall and everything west of Broadway up to Canal St. would be submerged, as wold the East Village from river to First Avenue and Chelsea west of Seventh Avenue.  By category 4 (Hurricane Louis was at its peak a Category 4) the Atlantic, backed up by sustained winds of up to 155 miles per hour, has flooded large sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Sheets of glass would rain down from skyscrapers.  LaPietra stops and leans back.  Only a Caterogy 5 hurricane, he says is impossible this far north.
To keep this in context we quote from a New York Times article published August 8, 2007, titled, Why Subways Flood.  This is an excellent summary of what happens when the subways flood, recommended reading in our opinion.
Most of New York City’s 6,000 miles of sewage lines are dual use; they handle rain runoff as well as sewage and industrial wastewater in the same pipes, before delivering the mixture to the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants. Heavy rains perennially overwhelm the pipes, causing the flow to back up, dumping everything from fecal matter and household trash to industrial pollutants like oil, grease and heavy metals into the city’s waterways and streets. 
The article goes on to say,
“We move 13 million gallons of water a day when it’s not raining,” Mr. Lombardi said. “We’re in the business of moving water, but we’re not in the business of moving water when it comes down like a river and goes into our vents.”
The article gives us an interesting statistic regarding the limitations of the pumping system and the onset of an unexpected storm. "The M.T.A.’s drainage system can handle 1.5 inches of rain per hour. Today’s storm dumped as many as 3 inches of rain per hour on the city."  According to sources, the subway system would fill up with water within in 36 hours without the continual pumps that operate 24 hours a day seven days a week.

For those who feel secure in a modern glass skyscraper.  We provide an interesting video.  During Hurricane Irene, engineers assured us that the buildings of Manhattan would have no problem surviving the hurricane.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

New York's first vulnerability is psychological. This is a city where children playing in the dirt are told by their mothers to "get up off the floor." We tend to forget that we have any connection whatsoever to the natural world. The vast majority of the city's eight million inhabitants simply have no idea that a hurricane can happen here. Nicholas Coch Professor Coastal Geology Queens College

As of our last check, an informal poll conducted by gothamist on the question, "Do you think NYC overreacted?" it was close.  48% answered yes 51% answered no.  In another poll conducted by the gothamist done earlier while the hurricane was approaching, the results were even more interesting to this question, "Are New Yorkers Overreacting to Hurricane Irene?"- 71% answered yes and 28% answered no.  To many, this "panic" was brought on by the constant media barrage concerning the hurricane.  Perhaps a classic statement of this view was said by white knight in a comment in
Much too much coverage and hype, in my opinion. You can't even find anything else on regular TV right now except Mike Bloomburg babbling on, or other redundant coverage of this minimal hurricane. Sure, I know there is a flood threat in flood prone areas, but that should be addressed on a local level, instead of hysteria on every single channel 24/7.
Among Fox viewers, the results of a poll were different.  In a similar question "Did Government Overreact to Irene?" We saw these results this morning:

Among the party crowd of Manhattan the New York Times noted a bar which was going to open the whole night of the hurricane and the mindset of its customers and owner.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: 

Even the National Guard had problems in Manville, N.J.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

Upon a discussion with my own sons on the approaching hurricane, they shared the view of white knight cited earlier.  They used words like paranoia when people spoke about disasters.  I asked one of them how they would know when the media was not overreacting.  He said that his rule of thumbs was to only believe half of what they said.  Which half he did not say.  Despite the good amount of skepticism which I always respect and encourage, It seemed a bit arbitrary.  We would prefer that people go by the facts of the matter, rather than by a rejection of what is said solely because of its source or even hyped character.  What are the facts?  What could happen to a city like New York?  Is its technology pretty much assure it of security from the forces of nature?

If hurricanes are not enough, we provide a set of videos from the BBC production, End Day.
If you cannot see the embedded videos, here is the link:

We will leave it to the reader to determine whether Mayor Bloomberg overreacted to the situation he faced.

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