It’s been nearly 20 years since a hurricane hit the East End of Long Island, and many government agencies and emergency services officials worry that, as the 2009 hurricane season gets ramped up, a sort of “hurricane amnesia” has beset a local populace that has gone through major changes since the last one.
Towns hold emergency preparedness seminars every year in hopes of reminding folks of the danger posed by hurricanes here and helping people ready themselves for the inevitable. The seminars are rarely attended by more than a handful of senior citizens.
Enter Dr. Beach.
When not strolling America’s coastlines in search of fluffy white sand and well outfitted concession stands for his annual “America’s Best Beaches” ranking, Stephen Leatherman, Ph.D, known to viewers of the Today Show as “Dr. Beach,” is also a hurricane expert who studies how hurricanes affect the coastline of the United States in hopes of protecting the citizenry in the path of future storms.
Surely the citizenry of the East End will be in the path of a future storm, Dr. Leatherman says, and he has worked for years to keep the region on its toes for when the train rounds the bend.
His latest effort, though not directed specifically at East End residents, is a new book, “Hurricanes: Causes, Effects and the Future,” published as part of the World Life Library series on natural disasters. Filled with photos of destruction meted out by hurricanes around the country—including the East End—and detailed graphics explaining the forces at work in the massive structure of a hurricane, the book chronicles some of the worst storms in recent years and forecasts which parts of the country are most in danger of being walloped by the next big one.
Long Island sits at fourth on the list, behind south Florida, the Gulf Coast and North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“Anyone who lives on the East End of Long Island—you are a target,” said Dr. Leatherman, who co-wrote “Hurricanes” with Jack Williams, founding editor of the USA Today weather page. “It’s not just a phenomenon. You don’t get hit directly as often as some other areas, but if you look at the tracks of hurricanes historically, there’s a lot that hit or nearly hit you. It’s only a matter of time.”
The book, he says, is aimed at the public, both as entertainment and as education, or warning. When he talks about the massive storms, Dr. Leatherman’s fascination appears to extend far beyond a professional capacity—he is the director of the International Hurricane Center at Florida International University—to a level of admiration.
“Hurricanes are such fascinating creatures,” he said. “The sheer size of these huge, circulating masses of air is amazing. Katrina nearly covered the entire Gulf of Mexico at one point.”
Amid the wonderment though is a sort of dread of the destruction the storms will bring with them. And Long Island, with its dense populations and trillions of dollars worth of property in low-lying coastal areas is particularly scary, he says. Of particular concern is how trees have grown into power lines in the decades since the last time a storm hit. Even a relatively weak hurricane, with not particularly strong winds but carrying heavy rains, could mean power outages that last weeks or even months in the wake of the storm.
A storm will find its way to the East End again eventually, Dr. Leatherman warns, pointing to the diagrams that explain how hurricanes maintain their strength by sucking heat from warm ocean waters. Long Island’s warm late-summer water makes its bathing beaches famous but also could allow a hurricane to slam into the coast without losing much steam. Also working against Long Island is that hurricanes tend to increase their forward speed as they move into northern latitudes, keeping them over cooler, inshore waters for a shorter amount of time and allowing them to maintain their strength. The famous 1938 hurricane, which killed hundreds of people on the East End, was dubbed “Long Island Express” because it charged up the coast so fast as to strike nearly without warning.
Modern technology allows for better forecasting and warning but a late night acceleration could still catch many off guard, Dr. Leatherman said.
“One of the problems we still face is how to tell people in the middle of the night that the hurricane is coming sooner than expected,” he said. “You could wake up in the morning and it will be right on top of you.”