Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The closest comparison we have for Sandy is probably Hurricane Donna.
What can we expect from a storm surge of as much as 11.7 feet, the maximum water level currently predicted for Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor?
To be clear, no one knows. At 900 miles wide, Hurricane Sandy is the largest Atlantic tropical storm system ever recorded and the most intense hurricane in recorded history north of North Carolina -- greater even than the fabled Yankee Clipper of 1938, which destroyed much of the Long Island beachfront. The extent of the damage will depend on whether Sandy's peak storm surge coincides with tonight's full-moon high tide, expected at 8:53 p.m. in New York's Battery Park.
The closest thing to a template we have may date from the Eisenhower administration, when Hurricane Donna swept up the East Coast, killing 50 and pushing a storm surge just shy of 11 feet into New York Harbor.
At the intersection of Cortlandt and West St., now the site of the World Trade Center, a New York Times photographer captured a man wading through a giant lake. The image has been making its way around the internet today:
For reference NYC, this is WTC site (form. West and Cortlandt St) during Donna in 1960. Forecasted surge is higher twitter.com/mattmfm/status…— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) October 28, 2012
In Rockaway Park, Queens, a 16-year-old boy took his 8mm camera into the streets to capture the immediate aftermath. It looks like people were pretty cheery, even as they waded through waist-deep water to get to their cars.
Winds of over 100 miles per hour were reported in Long Island during Donna. One observer was the writer John Steinbeck, waiting at his Sag Harbor house to begin the cross-country trip that would become Travels With Charley. From Travels With Charley (hat tip to Jason Allen Ashlock) here is Steinbeck describing the arrival of Hurricane Donna:
The wind struck the moment we were told it would, and ripped the water like a black sheet. It hammered like a fist. The whole top of an oak tree crashed down, grazing the cottage where we watched. The next gust stove was one of the big windows in. I forced it back and drove wedges in top and bottom with a hand ax. Electric power and telephones went out with the first blast, as we knew they must. And eight-foot tides were predicted. We watched the wind rip at earth and sea like a surging pack of terriers. The trees plunged and bent like grasses, and the whipped water raised a cream of foam. A boat broke loose and tobogganed up on the shore, and then another. Houses built in the benign spring and early summer took waves in their second-story windows. Our cottage is on a little hill thirty feet above sea level. But the rising tide washed over my high pier. As the wind changed direction I moved Rocinante to keep her always to leeward of our big oaks. The Fayre Eleyne rode gallantly, swinging like a weather vane away from the changing wind.
The wind stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and although the waves continued out of rhythm they were not wind-tattered, and the tides rose higher and higher. All the piers around our little bay had disappeared under water, and only their piles or hand rails showed. The silence was like a rushing sound. The radio told us we were in the eye of Donna, the still and frightening calm in the middle of the revolving storm.
Twelve years later, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a sea wall along Coney Island to protect from such storm surges, at a cost of $28 million. Local officials likened it to the Berlin Wall; it was never built.