* Latest track models suggest Long Island hit on Sunday
* 1821, 1938 storms show potential for severe loss
* Some already warning of $10 billion-plus disaster
By Ben Berkowitz
NEW YORK, Aug 24 In the annals of natural
disasters, it doesn't get much worse than a major hurricane
directly striking New York City and Long Island.
Hurricane Irene is on a course that will take it up the
East Coast from the weekend. While there is still uncertainty
about where it will hit and when, the forecast models
increasingly suggest some parts of the greater New York area
will face some type of storm or hurricane impact.
According to New York City's Office of Emergency
Management, the last hurricane to pass directly over the city
was in 1821 -- and it caused tides to rise 13 feet in one hour,
flooding all of lower Manhattan to Canal St.
But for Long Island, the threat is much worse. People still
talk about the Long Island Express of 1938, a Category 3 storm
that the U.S. government has said would cause $40 billion in
damage if it hit today.
Meteorologists say the risk appears most acute for areas
like the Hamptons, an eastern Long Island playground for New
"If the storm followed the exact track of it, there could
be considerable wind damage and tidal flooding out in those
areas," said James Aman, senior meteorologist with WeatherBug.
"There potentially could be some storm surge problems out
around the eastern tip of Long Island, Rhode Island, Cape Cod,
some of the areas around Boston that face Massachusetts Bay."
Estimating the damage such an impact would cause is
difficult without knowing the storm's parameters, like wind
speed, rainfall totals, direction and the like. Some are
already taking a ballpark guess, though.
"If Irene hits Long Island or southeast Massachusetts, the
storm has the potential to be a $10 billion disaster," Weather
Underground's Jeff Masters said in a blog post Wednesday.
If Masters is right, that would make the insured losses
from Irene some of the worst in history, at a time that
insurers are already stretched by record-breaking natural
disasters around the world.
Reuters Hurricane Tracker r.reuters.com/san78n
National Hurricane Center www.nhc.noaa.gov
Florida State map (external link) bit.ly/odn5OY
DAMAGING THE RICH
High net worth insurers like AIG (AIG.N) and Chubb (CB.N)
are big players in those kinds of upper-class regions, where
insured losses can total up quickly due to high property values
as well as extensive collections of art and jewelry.
They are scrambling now to warn their customers to be
prepared, to take the kinds of precautions that people in
places like Florida take for granted.
"Without the repetition of events like the folks in Florida
benefit from, that preparedness is not front and center," said
Michael Taylor, executive vice president for claims in the
consumer unit at Chartis, the property insurance arm of AIG.
Taylor said Chartis has been in touch with its brokers,
asking them to contact customers and remind them of hurricane
preparedness tips that they already receive yearly but might
There is only so much preparedness can do, though. Taylor
said even the homes of the wealthy sometimes don't feature
things like hurricane-strength glass and wind shutters, which
are standard in parts of Florida but less common in the
"These are things that will make homes a little more
susceptible here, if we do have high winds," he added.
Those winds could be a problem for New York City in
particular, a number of experts say.
Florida State University has created an online map that
shows the track of 14 different models, two of which show the
Irene plowing straight through New Jersey and putting New York
City, Newark and other areas on the wrong side of the storm.
Given how compact Manhattan is, even tropical storm-force
conditions could do serious damage.
"The water's got to go somewhere and the wind is going to
hit something," said Lou Gritzo, research manager at insurer FM
Global. "New York City becomes a wind tunnel when the wind
whips between the buildings, so that's going to be a force that
intensifies how projectiles are moving."
$100 BILLION DISASTER
In fact, ask any scientist who models catastrophes for a
living what it would take to create a $100 billion natural
disaster, and their list will almost always include a major
hurricane (Category 3 or higher) hitting New York City.
"We haven't had a storm in this area for quite some time
and it's difficult to say how tested some of these buildings
are against hurricane force winds," said Matt Nielsen, product
manager for the U.S. hurricane model at catastrophe modeling
The city's emergency management office featured Irene front
and center on its website Wednesday, urging people to know
whether they were in a designated hurricane risk zone and to
know the proper evacuation routes out of the city.
Even if Irene passes far enough away from the city and the
New York region to spare a full-force impact, flooding can
still be a significant problem, especially with tides expected
to be high anyway over the weekend due to a new moon.
Four of the six most significant flood events of the last
30 years, based on the amount paid out by the National Flood
Insurance Program in claims, included the New York region --
Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hurricane Isabel in 2003, Tropical
Storm Allison in 2001 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Paid claims from those four storms, just for flooding,
topped $3.5 billion, according to data compiled by the
Insurance Information Institute.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)