I should have taken the hint from the sprinkling of rain that accompanied yesterday’s trip back to Philly from the golden fall colours of the upper Delaware. The rain has intensified on the back of a fierce Southeasterly that is systematically ripping those leaves off all the trees and sweeping them drainwards along the street as Hurricane Sandy swerves left off Cape Hatteras and comes to pay us a visit.
Hurricanes are not to be taken lightly at the best of times but the stretch of US coast between Virginia and Massachusetts has spring tides and are now expecting a storm surge between 5 and 8 feet on top of that. Any coastline would be threatened by that but this entire stretch consists of low-lying islands (geologically terminal moraine from glaciers) with lagoons inland and much of Delaware, South Jersey and Long Island are Lincolnshire-flat and not much above sea level.
So far, disruption has been serious but not severe. Because much of the Eastern seaboard of the US is covered with trees—including most suburban streets—and the standard means of local power distribution is along cables hung on telephone-poles-on-steroids down each street, it only takes one serious branch blown down for an entire series of city blocks to be without power. We still have power here in Audubon but the blackout is expected momentarily.
The storm was well predicted but local media have been in overdrive about its seriousness, labelling it ‘frankenstorm’, calling it “massive and life-threatening” and “worst case scenario for the New Jersey shore”. As a result, local stores are being reduced to empty shelves as emergency supplies are being snapped up at the last minute. Ours here is completely out of bottled water, D batteries and flashlights (i.e. torches) and running low on things like crackers (i.e. biscuits), peanut butter and candles.
Worse than that, a whole series of airports between Washington DC and Boston’s Logan are closed to traffic, all flights in and out cancelled and virtually all flights to the eastern seaboard from Europe cancelled too. Many businesses are closed, not least because workers declined to undertake the long daily drive that most do. The most serious among these is that the NY Stock Exchange did not open for business today and even the 24-hr circus of entertainment at Atlantic City closed as of noon.
Of most concern are those living along the low-lying Jersey shore. All of the various settlements and holiday cottages have been under evacuation orders since yesterday but coastal flooding is expected to be severe and to affect communities not normally at risk, such as in the lagoons themselves, up the Delaware River beyond Philly, all along the tortuous shoreline of all five boros of New York City and even the normally sheltered Long Island Sound.
At the time of writing, the eye of the storm was expected to hit the coast at Atlantic City by this evening. Winds of 50 mph will be common, with gusts to 75 mph as far inland as Audubon and of 90 mph at the coast itself. For the Philadelphia/South Jersey area 4 inches of rain are expected to fall in the next 24 hours. Whether the zillions of leaves washed into street drains will allow all of this to quietly flow away remains to be seen.
Because weather in much of the States tends to be calm and wind-free, they are more sensitive than most Brits to the effects of a stiff breeze. And, having seen some filthy North Sea weather myself, I am not too nervous about life and limb. But the next 24 hours may change that insouciance as, with around 45m Americans who live in this most populous part of their country face what may be the storm of the century.