On living in vulnerable areas

When I first started college, a Long Islander willingly transplanted to the St. Louis, I mentioned at some point how I couldn’t imagine growing up with the constant threat of tornadoes. Almost every time the response was, “Yeah, but you guys have hurricanes!”

Which startled me. Because I knew Long Island didn’t get the really bad hurricanes, because I only could remember like two hurricanes of any size there in my whole lifetime, and because, well, unlike tornadoes hurricanes gave you advance warning, and you could always get out of the way.

Even before this past year, I kind of had come to understand how that last point wasn’t really, totally true, and that my experience wasn’t as extensive as I’d thought.

Some years years ago, I caught a story on my 1930s hurrcane that did real damage to Long Island. (The 1930s seem to have been an overall nasty time for hurricanes.) Finally went ahead and looked up the details, and learned that the 1938 Long Island Express was a cat 3 storm–and that that cat 3 was enough to cause incredible damage both on the Island and in New England.

As of a few years ago, I knew how vulnerable New Orleans was. I also knew that I’d grown up in the sort of town that you might want to–sometimes, if the storm was strong enough–evacuate for the North Shore for a few hours when a hurricane hit. I never did evacuate, but my family did, my first year of college, when Hurricane Gloria came through, because, after all, that was an unusually strong storm.

Except it wasn’t. It was a category 1 storms. All the storms that I remember, and brushed off, from my childhood were cat 1. That cat 3 storm of the 30s–most of the people living on Long Island don’t remember it.

Here’s an interesting animated gif showing how the storm surge from a cat 1 hurricane would halfway submurge my home town. Anything stronger than cat 1 would submerge it completely. (Here are links to maps of the rest of the Island.)

That’s right. I grew up in one of those vulnerable areas, ill-suited to withstand even a medium-sized hurricane, with dense population and logistical issues around evacuating. The sort of area that, should a storm hit, everyone would shake their heads and wonder why I’d lived there in the first place. Yet it never felt that way. I somehow doubt it often does.

I had many reasons for leaving Long Island, but none of them had anything to do with the hurricane risks. No one I know has ever thought “I won’t live on Long Island; they have hurricanes.” Were I living there now–were it the place I had chosen to make my home–I very much doubt I’d be thinking of leaving, even now. And I can’t even convince myself I’d be foolish for it. What places in the country don’t have some risk?

At any rate, should any of my New York relations or acquaintances sigh about how people ought not live on the Gulf, I’m gonna show them those maps, and remind them of 1938.

And any Midwesterners? Gonna remind them of those tornadoes, the thought of which still kind of freaks me out.

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