NEW YORK – It's coming, with skyscraper-rattling winds and a 30-foot storm surge that threatens to submerge Wall Street, flood the subways and turn Coney Island into a water park.
When it arrives, more than 3 million New Yorkers — more than six times the population of New Orleans — could be forced to evacuate by the first major hurricane to hit the city since 1938.
A killer storm in the nation's largest city, with flooding in all five boroughs, inaccessible highways and airports, and enormous traffic jams, would require an unprecedented response.
After the summer of Katrina and Rita, New Yorkers are wondering if the city can handle the challenge.
"The plan now is full of technical and other management flaws," said state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (search), who chairs a committee investigating the city's planned response. "There's a basic bottom line: We are incredibly vulnerable, and our leaders are patting us on the head saying, 'There, there. Trust us.'"
A recent WNBC-TV/Marist Poll indicated that 62 percent of New Yorkers felt it was not possible to evacuate their neighborhoods.
Not true, city emergency officials say. New York is ready to respond to the hurricane risks, and the city dispatched staffers to New Orleans and Texas in hopes of learning from Katrina and Rita.
"There's a lot of criticism and public debate, but our plan is workable and we're prepared," said Jarrod Bernstein, spokesman for the city Office of Emergency Management. "Our plan is comprehensive and only getting better."
A major hurricane barrels into New York City about once every 90 years. The last big blow came with the 1938 Long Island Express (search), which killed 700 people, about 600 in New England, and left 63,000 people homeless. Its center came ashore on Long Island, about 75 miles from New York City.
"If it happened before, it will happen again," said hurricane expert Nicholas Coch, a Queens College (search) professor of coastal geology.
The city's current response plan for a category 4 storm with 155 mph winds would handle 3.3 million evacuees and provide shelter for up to 800,000 displaced people, Bernstein said. But the OEM estimated it would take nearly 18 hours to evacuate just 1 million people, putting a severe strain on emergency services, mass transit and the infrastructure.
Coch mentioned another rarely discussed factor: a Northern hurricane moves typically at 34 mph, about triple the speed of a Southern storm.
A big blast would come with a storm surge of 30 feet, turning the water into "a giant bulldozer sweeping away everything in its path," according to OEM's "Hurricanes and New York City."
In fact, an 1821 hurricane lifted the tide 13 feet in an hour, with the East and Hudson rivers converging over lower Manhattan as far north as Canal Street. Deaths and property damage were limited because the city was far smaller back then.
In today's downtown, the FDR Drive, One Police Plaza and City Hall are all in the flood zone for a major hurricane making landfall just south of the city. Wall Street would be under water. The South Street Seaport would become more sea, less port.
To avert traffic jams in a city where the 2.3-mile trip across Manhattan can take an hour on an ordinary day, officials would evacuate from the coasts inward and use mass transportation as much as possible. This would include the PATH trains, New Jersey Transit (search) and Amtrak for people seeking shelter outside the city.
Unlike New Orleans, the city has no land below sea level. But it is particularly vulnerable because of its location: tucked in a bend between the New Jersey and Long Island coastlines, at a right angle to incoming storms. That could turn even a category 2 hurricane into a major nightmare.
Brodsky is critical of OEM's plan to move evacuees in two shifts. Initially, evacuees would travel to one of 23 reception centers across the five boroughs. Only then would they board a bus or van for transportation to an evacuation center — if New Yorkers even show up.
Convincing them about the dangers of a hurricane on the Hudson is a major part of the process. "Most New Yorkers," Coch said, "think hurricanes only occur in places with palm trees."