Suffolk Closeup: Waiting for next time

We dodged a bullet with Henri hitting Rhode Island head-on rather than us last week. But the hurricane threat is far from gone. With the hurricane season running from June 1 to November 30, the threat in the short-term remains possible, and assured in the long-term.

And this comes as climate change is causing more frequent and more severe hurricanes (and other extreme weather events). Global warming is heating waters on which hurricanes feed. States along the Gulf of Mexico have been the most impacted in recent times by quickly developing major hurricanes. But the Atlantic coast — including where we are — is a hurricane alley, too.

It seemed definite (as much as hurricane predictions can be definite, although forecasts have become very good in recent years) that Henri would strike us.  

“Henri Sets Sights On The East End” said the Newsday headline. Its story began: “Long Island stands in the crosshairs of a hurricane that could potentially wreak havoc with flooding, power losses, downed trees and all the misery that come with that.”

As for electric outages, an accompanying Newsday article was headlined: “Dire Warning On Outages.” It began: “PSEG Long Island said the potential for ‘severe damage’ from Hurricane Henri could cause outages that last up to two weeks …” Two weeks!

People were making preparations and there was justifiable high anxiety.

But, amazingly, on the morning that Henri was to clobber us came the report that it had shifted to the east and would likely make landfall in Rhode Island. “A difference of 30 miles compared to the earth’s diameter of 7,900 miles may not seem like much, but it can be when you’re dealing with a hurricane,” said Newsday meteorologist Bill Korbel.

What’s to learn? Two major things: For decades I’ve written about the need to put under ground electric lines in the Long Island Power Authority service area. In April, I related how Kevin Law, on his last day as president and CEO of the Long Island Association, sent a letter to President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer requesting federal help for the undergrounding of electric lines here. I noted that Mr. Law knew the situation well from previously being president and CEO of LIPA, which owns the lines.

He asked that funds be made “to bury the electric grid” of LIPA. He linked this to “efforts to invest in our national infrastructure.” And, since, two bills providing trillions of dollars for infrastructure work in the U.S. have been passed by Congress.

Mr. Law pointed out that there are “approximately 10,000 miles of overhead [electric] lines” in the LIPA system. “Major storms, including Hurricane Isaias, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Gloria demonstrated the immense vulnerabilities of our grid. These storms caused significant disruption and widespread damage such as downed trees and fallen power lines.”

Indeed, Hurricane Gloria in 1985 caused a loss of electricity to 700,000 electric ratepayers of the then-Long Island Lighting Company (to be succeeded by LIPA).

But nearly all telephone service continued without interruption. Why?  It was because, in the 1970s, telephone lines began being placed underground. What’s good for telephone lines is good for electric lines.

The details of the infrastructure legislation are still to be worked out. There is time to include funding for undergrounding LIPA’s electric lines. A push by our federal representatives is needed.

Then, re-emphasized by Henri: the need for relocation of structures built in vulnerable areas of our coasts. “Fortunately,” says Kevin McAllister, founder and president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20, we were “spared the brunt of Henri. But our sigh of relief will be short-lived, as there most certainly will be a next time.”

“Whether it’s a named storm or a winter nor’easter, storm surge will be a constant and growing threat and compounded by an accelerating sea level rise,” he says. “Our days of living on wetland fringes, sand spits, isthmuses and some sections of barrier islands are numbered. The sooner we accept the inevitable and monumental changes that are underway, the sooner we can start moving back, off and out of vulnerable areas, the more resilient we will be. We know where they exist, so let’s get started.”

Otherwise, declared Mr. McAllister, people of this area “will rue the day we failed to listen to Henri’s wake-up call.”