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Hurricane Irene could cripple New York City, weather official says

But here is the sobering bottom line: Katrina turned out not to be the worst case. She weakened before she hit land. Had she maintained Category-Five strength, the flooding in New Orleans would have been quicker (due to additional breaches, likely resulting in more deaths), the impressive storm surge in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana would have been higher (likely resulting in more deaths) and the inland wind damage would have been worse.

New York City has been hit by hurricanes and will be again. The Baltimore-Washington area is vulnerable if a major hurricane moves up Chesapeake Bay. Andrew did not hit the heart of Miami; a direct hit will be far worse. Houston-Galveston is a huge, growing and vulnerable population center. And there’s one area few people have considered: while rare, hurricanes have and do hit California. There are zero plans in place for when a hurricane returns to the West Coast. We must not become complacent: there are many possible “Katrinas” lurking.

- “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, by Mike Smith

As Hurricane Irene strikes the East Coast, Mike Smith finds himself particularly worried about New York. The city has had one of the wettest Augusts in its history, he said, so it will be especially vulnerable to flash flooding from the heavy rains and storm surges of Irene.

“The ground is absolutely saturated – you put another 5 to 10 inches on top of that…,” said Smith, founder of Wichita-based WeatherData, Inc., which this week was renamed AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.

With such wet soil, trees will be more easily uprooted by hurricane-force winds, bringing down power lines and blocking streets. That will complicate and slow down power restoration, Smith said.

There’s more.

“There are unique hurricane hazards to New York City,” Smith said.

If the hurricane comes through New York Harbor or Brooklyn – as forecast models were predicting Friday morning – Lower Manhattan will flood.

The city’s skyscrapers could see “cascading glass breakage” as flying debris breaks windows and then shifting internal air pressure within the buildings forces tens of thousands of additional panes to shatter.

“Some of these buildings have literally thousands of windows,” Smith said. “You can’t use the building if the windows are broken…you could have a large number of important buildings that are going to be unusable for months.

“Nobody's sitting around with 1,000 custom-cut panes of glass,” he said. “It has to be manufactured and installed.”

In short, he said, New York City could be crippled by Irene.

And that doesn’t even factor in the possibility of the subway system being flooded. Subway service has already been suspended from Saturday afternoon until Monday. Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for low-lying areas of Manhattan.

Smith is monitoring Irene’s path and forecasts closely on his blog, offering radar imagery and perspective among his musings.