Remember all the hype about Hurricane Sandy being a "superstorm," a once-in-500-years convergence of meteorological nastiness? According to a newly-published study by a Swiss insurance firm, Swiss Re, things could have been a lot worse.
Though the combination of factors that created Sandy was indeed unusual, Sandy wasn't the most powerful storm that's ever hit the U.S. East Coast. That distinction probably belongs to the massive 1821 Norfolk and Long Island hurricane, which moved along the Mid-Atlantic before striking the New York/New Jersey coastline with wind speeds of 156 miles per hour.
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The hurricane was one of the few that have passed directly over parts of New York City. On the afternoon of Sept. 3, 1821, it caused tides to rise 13 feet in one hour, inundating wharves and causing the East River to flow into the Hudson across lower Manhattan, as far north as Canal Street, according to the city's Office of Emergency Management.
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As the New York Evening Post reported the next day, the storm raged for four hours, "throwing down chimneys, unroofing buildings, and prostrating trees in various directions...the falling of slate from the roofs of the buildings, and the broken glass on the windows, made it unsafe for anyone to venture into the streets." A French warship, the "Quarantine," actually was ripped from her moorings.
Amazingly, the Post didn't report any fatalities, though a man named Taylor was struck by lightening during the storm and "badly burnt."
Swiss Re disaster analyst Megan Linkin, who studied the effects of that storm on the then-relatively sparsely developed Eastern Seaboard, calculates that if a similar storm struck today, it would cause $100 billion in physical damage - twice that of Sandy - and another $150 billion in economic losses from the disruption.
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David A. Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist at Rutgers University, told the Asbury Park Press that the wind damage from a repeat of the 1821 storm would be so great that "it would be weeks, if not months, before the power grid would be restored in this state. That's without question."