The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch *

In 1938 Eastern Long Island took the brunt of a hurricane that swept through the New England area. It was devastating:

Credit: SUNY Suffolk

The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.

Since then experts have been warning New Yorkers that we could get hit again. It's become a favorite fact on Discovery Channel disaster projection programs that New York City is only a few feet above sea level and the storm surge could wreak havoc, particularly by immobilizing the subway system. As Live Science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "it is a question of when, not if."

But the promised storm has only been a vague threat so far. A few weeks ago, New Yorkers braced for Hurricane Earl. The Wall Street Journal's Metropolis projected that:

Residents will see the worst of the conditions as Hurricane Earl makes its closest approach. That means gusts up to 80mph on the Jersey Shore and Eastern Long Island, with gusts to 100mph at Montauk Point.  The city could see gusts to up 40mph, higher in the top floors of Midtown skyscrapers.

We all waited a little anxiously. And then nothing. Earl gave us some wind and a bit of rain, but it largely ignored New York City and western Long Island--though I'm told there were some fantastic swells out at Montauk.  This cycle of warnings and misses has left many New Yorkers a bit skeptical about "a big one." And curious as well about what these storms can actually do. Well, last night Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what sudden strong winds and heavy rain could do and the responses were interesting to note.

At about 5:30 yesterday, there were reports that a tornado touched down in Brooklyn and Queens. I was on my way home at the time, and caught the end of the storm as the LIRR commuter train I was on emerged from the tunnel into Queens, and it was pretty nasty. Our train came to a standstill on the tracks and rocked back and forth as the winds buffeted the cars. My commute wound up taking 4.5 hours last night but we'll get to that shortly because I want to deal with the absolute fascination that gripped New Yorkers as the storm unfolded. Let's go to the videos:

This one shows the storm rolling into Brooklyn:

This one lets you see the funnel:

And this one is worth checking out from the two minute mark, though you may want to read the commentary here first.

The emotions in the videos range from general curiosity to amazement. The guys in the third video don't strike me as frightened. And to tell you the truth, I certainly wasn't--though I was sitting in the relative safety of a train car, and did not actually see a funnel cloud. I can tell you that had I actually seen a funnel cloud, my instinct would have been to duck and cover, and not to shoot video (so at least these fearless fools gave us some documentation, I suppose). Also, had I been on an elevated track, I probably would have been more frightened. A friend of mine was on the ferry headed to New Jersey, and she was certain they were going to sink.

On Facebook, there was some mention of safety, but again, the majority of folks seemed genuinely curious and awed (names have been removed to preserve privacy; grammar and spelling preserved):

  • Loved watching the storm today from our floor to ceiling windows at the office.. hail, lightning, the works.. but looks like we were let off real easy!!
  • Survived a tornado while in a steel car on the 7 train & a 4 hour commute... only to get bit by a mosquito when I get home...ugh.
  • Why is it that the one time there actually is a tornado, the weather people don't make it a big deal...and all the other million times we were supposedly going to get a tornado or hurricane, nothing happened!
  • A rainstorm causes all transportation out of the city to shut down. Anyone else stuck in Manhattan? Lets get a beer.

The verdict is still out on whether the storm was actually a tornado or a "severe" thunderstorm--though a poll on the WSJ Metropolis (see bottom of the page) suggests that New Yorkers have decided that it was in fact a tornado. The day after responses indicate some awareness that there was a fair amount of danger:

  • So LI doesnt look like anything happened yesterday. saw some of the damage in queens on the ride into work this morning, craziness!
  • Eek, campus is a mess. Definitely looks like a tornado came through, yessirree.

And one person doubted the city's preparedness to deal with the aftermath of these types of storms:

  • NYC isn't ready for any Chaotic weather like what just happen for 10-15minutes....I couldn't get out my own took me 45mins to get to my crib to Queens college which takes me 5mins driving CrazY

Day after tornado in NYC, 9/17/10. Credit: K. Jesrani, Facebook

And indeed, from a commuting perspective, it was madness. Here's how the storm unfolded for me:

  • 5:00 Leave work; sky overcast, but no sign of storm to come.
  • 5:32 LIRR train leaves Penn Station heading east.
  • Approx. 5:40 Train emerges from East River Tunnel into Queens into crazy rainstorm.
  • Approx. 5:42 I take out my phone to let the hubby know I'll take a cab and he shouldn't rush home to try and pick me up.
  • Approx. 5:45 Train comes to a standstill.
  • Approx. 5:50 Train rolling at about 5 mph, then stops again. Announcement soon follows about potential "switch problems" at Jamaica.
  • Approx. 5:50 - 6:10 More announcements about "switch trouble." Told we would be updated once they had more information.
  • Approx. 6:15 Told a tree has fallen in front of us and cannot proceed east until it is cleared.
  • Approx. 6:20 Told we were being rerouted back to Penn.
  • Approx. 6:50 Train routed west back to Penn.
  • Approx. 7: 15 Arrive at Penn, stand in line to get E train.
  • Approx. 7:30 Board E train to Jamaica (where presumably I can get a train home.)
  • Approx. 8:00 Sick passenger on train ahead of us. Delayed for 20 minutes in the tunnel.
  • Approx. 8:45 Arrive at Jamaica LIRR terminal.
  • Scan board for train.
  • 9:05 Board a train home.
  • 9:15 Actually leave for home.
  • 9:30 Arrive at home LIRR station.

While the LIRR crew were as friendly as possible, and were quite good at heading off frustrated complaints (e.g., We're as frustrated as you guys. We'll let you know when we have more information"), the system was a mess. The subway system was in no way prepared to handle the overflow of customers. Many wondered why the MTA didn't deploy an "express" train to get the passengers from Penn to Jamaica, which would have helped remove the crowd from Penn and allow other customers to use the system--instead the trains ran on a slightly delayed schedule and many more people were delayed since they couldn't board the packed trains.

And the Office of Emergency Management, which sends out Tweets to help people find their way, Tweeted the wrong directions for passengers taking the subway! They corrected it shortly after--I sent in a correction as I am sure others did--but it sure seems as though someone was sleeping over there. Really, the last thing we needed was incorrect directions to add to the chaos. (Click to embiggen the image below)

Hopefully, this recent encounter with a(n) (alleged) tornado will help New Yorkers understand the potential damage a hurricane could cause. We're been lucky so far, but until we start to demand better preparedness from city and transportation agencies, we should really be prepared for chaos.  And we ourselves need to be better prepared--that means understanding alternative routes home. I was astounded by the number of fellow LIRR riders who looked lost, and seemed to regard Queens as a vast foreign land! I overheard one young woman tell her mother, "I'm in Queens mom--the middle of nowhere!" Daily riders seemed to have little sense of the route they were on. We had just emerged from the tunnel at Penn. Jamaica was still 30 minutes away and there were other stations we would need to pass to get there, but one woman told her companion, "I can see Jamaica station up ahead. Can't they just get us there?!" So, yes, we all need to be better prepared. But in the meantime, I'd settle for OEM to employ someone who can provide subway directions.

Updated 9/18/10: Additional photos from Kevin Jesrani.

*Lyrics to "Munchkinland" from The Wizard of Oz.

11 responses so far

  • That was a helluva fucken storm!

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bora Zivkovic, Victoria Kamsler. Victoria Kamsler said: RT @BoraZ: The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch* Tornado in NYC yesterday [...]

  • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    Wow! Great shots.

    That "wall of white" in the first two videos is very characteristic of a high-intensity storm. If buildings had not been in the way, you could have seen the outflow and rain "foaming" at the base of the white wall.

    • kdcosta says:

      Interesting. If it had been a larger storm (covering NYC and Long Island more completely), I wonder if this would have been more evident in other areas.

  • BrooklynLocal says:

    I think your sarcasim towards the Office of Emergency Management was a little too much in this post, you stated "sure seems as though someone was sleeping over there." They were Tweeting none stop during the storm (I got 6 or 7 of them) and were the first one to get out the tornado warnings before the storm struck. To say they were sleeping because they switched trains that go to Atlantic and Jamaica is laughable, seems like a simple mistake to me. I know its hard for you to imagine but I am sure they were a little busy during the immediate aftermath of the storm. OEM as well as the FDNY and NYPD were out in the storm putting there lives on the line to help people, think of that point next time you write such garbage.

    • kdcosta says:

      It may indeed have been a simple mistake, but the timeliness of the information combined with its incorrectness is an egregious fault. These Tweets were offered well after 10 pm. The error aside, why weren't they trying to route people elsewhere before? There were hundreds of people stranded, and it is a shame that people who accessed OEM were initially misinformed. In an emergency, anything that adds to confusion--especially something as "simple" as this--should not be accepted. It took almost 15 minutes for a correction to be issued. If the retraction had been immediate, there would be no need to draw attention to OEM. There is no criticism in the post regarding the efforts of the FDNY and NYPD or the OEM field operators, who always serve NYC admirably, but a rightly deserved criticism for the person sitting at the desk in charge of distributing this information.

    • ManhattanLocal says:

      Brooklyn, do you have a tie to the OEM that you haven't revealed? The author pointed out a flaw in their communications--and she backed it up with evidence. These aren't wild claims. The mistake shouldn't have been made in the first place. And a correction should not have taken 15 minutes. In an emergency, all pieces need to work together seamlessly. How can we get better if things like this aren't pointed out?

  • [...] The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch * (tornado in NYC) [...]

  • Wendy Caster says:

    Excellent, informative post. Thanks! I was down in D.C. and missed the whole thing, so it all feels surrealistic to me.

    As for your criticism about the incorrect info being sent out: As someone who has been responsible for more typos than I care to admit, I'm not in a position to be too critical of the one mistake, as awful as it was, though 15 minutes was certainly too long to correct it. And I suspect it's not all that easy to run an unscheduled express train--there are lots of other trains on the tracks. But the seeming lack of preparedness is incredibly disturbing.

    By the way, did you know that the Citicorp Bldg on Lexington Ave and 53rd was found some years ago to have a design flaw that would make it vulnerable to high winds? (As in, it coulda fallen down?) And that this fact was discovered when a hurricane was on its way?

    • kdcosta says:

      Welcome back. It seemed surreal while it was happening, so I'm not sure how much you missed! I was struck by the way most people in Manhattan had seemed to have already forgotten it had happened already. Since the damage wasn't as extensive in the city as it was in the boroughs, this was probably easy to do.

      I'll also concede that perhaps I am being too harsh about the error with the directions, but I really feel it should have been correctly more quickly. Still, it was a learning experience for all involved, so perhaps we'll be better prepared in the future if the need arises.

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