The Science Behind Hurricane Sandy

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Hurricane Sandy is swinging in toward the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., packing winds of more than 75 miles per hour, heavy rains and storm surges that could reach 11 feet. Steve Inskeep speaks with NPR's Jon Hamilton about the science behind the storm.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. The eye of Hurricane Sandy is still well out to sea, but the storm is so huge - perhaps 1,000 miles across - that it seems to be everywhere at once. For example, NPR's Larry Abramson has seen heavy weather and heavy waves in Ocean City, Maryland.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: We went over to the ocean side, and the beach is basically gone. There are tremendous seas. I've really never seen anything like this. Twenty, 25 foot waves crashing on the beach.

INSKEEP: Larry does report little damage to Ocean City itself, but this is on a peninsula, part of a chain of barrier islands for the most part that takes the worst abuse of a storm. Our colleague Robert Smith reports beaches overwhelmed in Queens, and in New York City, elsewhere the Holland Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnels, we're told, major tunnels into Manhattan, are to be closed at 2:00.

NPR's Ailsa Chang is on the island of Manhattan in New York Harbor. She's in lower Manhattan. And Ailsa, what have you been seeing?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, basically here in Battery Park the flooding's quite low. It's at most four inches along areas of the promenade along Battery Park. Earlier it was a few inches higher than that, but the tide is receding. Residents here are actually strolling up and down with their cameras, taking it all in. Of course I'm talking to people who did not evacuate. This is an evacuation zone. So the people I'm talking to, they're talking about memories of Hurricane Irene and how over-hyped that they felt that hurricane was. They think this hurricane is going to be no worse than that, at least for their section of town, and so these people are not moving from their apartments.

INSKEEP: Okay, I hope they're right. But I just want to check one thing. I want to make sure I've got this correct. You said there's only a few inches of water in Battery Park, which is by New York Harbor, but isn't there a great big sea wall that the water would have gone up to get over?

CHANG: Yeah. Earlier this morning there was a few inches higher of flooding, but what they're expecting is a vast amount of flooding to be occurring tonight when the tide does rise, around (unintelligible) about 8:00, maybe 9:00 p.m. We're going to see water come over the steps - so we're not talking inches, we're talking feet, along the park. And actually one large concern right now is because there are subway stations quite close to the water here, the salt water coming in may end up damaging the subway stations, it may corrode the metal. And so that - for the people that I'm talking to, the public safety officials here, that's kind of the main concern right now.

INSKEEP: Okay, the people in lower Manhattan who are staying in their apartments, I'm hoping that when they went back to the apartments, they've turned on the radio, they're listening now, because NPR's Jon Hamilton is with us. And Jon, might this storm be more severe than Hurricane Irene a year ago?

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: I think it's almost certain to be, as far as the flooding in Manhattan. The low estimates for tidal surge are in the six foot range, as opposed to four and a half feet for Irene. And of course what Ailsa's talking about happening tonight is you're going to have the confluence of the peak of high tide with a much higher tidal surge than we've got now. So a few inches could turn into a lot of feet very quickly.

INSKEEP: Just very briefly, Jon Hamilton. When we look at satellite images, we see a storm that is - looks like it's three, four, five times bigger than Hurricane Irene going up the coast. How important is that?

HAMILTON: It's a huge factor in things like tidal surge. We tend to focus on the intensity of hurricanes - how many miles an hour is the wind blowing. But in fact a very, very large storm like this can do much more damage precisely because it pushes wind across water over a much larger area.

INSKEEP: Okay, Ailsa Change, you're still just seeing a few inches of water there, I trust?

CHANG: That's right. It'll probably be hours before we see more water flooding here.

INSKEEP: Okay, try to keep dry if you can. Thanks very much.

CHANG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang, Battery Park in Manhattan. Also NPR's Jon Hamilton.

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