Can a hurricane destroy a New York City skyscraper?
NEW YORK (WPIX) – Imagine a hurricane so strong that it topples the Empire State Building, snaps the Central Park Tower or blows out all the windows of the Chrysler Building.
It sounds like something out of a destruction montage in a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. But could it actually happen?
The short answer: the chances are slim to none. It would be incredibly difficult for a hurricane of that strength to reach New York City, WPIX meteorologist Andrew Cruz said. Additionally, skyscrapers are specifically designed with the ability to handle extreme winds, according to the New York City Department of Buildings.
Skyscrapers across the United States that were built to modern construction codes have typically fared well in hurricanes of all strengths, said the Department of Buildings. The structural stability of skyscrapers in New York City isn’t something to be concerned about in the face of extreme winds, Department of Buildings spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said.
“These towers in [New York City] are specifically engineered to sustain extremely high winds, well above what they are likely to experience during a severe weather event,” Rudansky said.
New York City’s building codes include specific requirements for considering “wind load” when buildings are designed. Rather than a single wind speed that skyscrapers must be designed to withstand, engineers use equations that incorporate a number of factors to calculate minimum wind load requirements that must be included in a building’s design.
“While there are a number of factors to consider, it is generally true that the taller the building, the more stringent the requirement,” Rudansky said.
Separate from the wind requirements, New York City implemented new provisions after the 9/11 terror attacks to prevent a full building collapse in the occurrence of an extreme event. Towers built after the new requirements went into effect contain structural elements that strengthen the overall resiliency of the building should a key structural element fail, according to the Department of Buildings.
During severe storms, the Department of Buildings is primarily concerned about buildings that haven’t been properly maintained, regardless of their height. Buildings that have fallen into disrepair over the years or have other preexisting structural issues are more likely to be damaged or destroyed – even during less severe storms.
This wreckage often comes in the form of facade collapses, roof collapses and other structural damage. One of the many memorable images of destruction from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was of a four-story building in Manhattan that suffered a facade collapse, exposing the rooms inside.
During Superstorm Sandy, older one-story buildings with lighter frames suffered the most severe structural damage, according to a report from New York City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency. High-rise buildings generally did not experience as much structural damage as smaller buildings, the report found.
Ten years ago, when Superstorm Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, its maximum wind speed was 80 mph, equivalent to a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Sandy had weakened by the time it reached the Northeast from the Caribbean, exemplifying why it’s less likely for a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane to hit the New York City area.
“It is very hard for hurricanes to head up into the northern latitudes where we are while maintaining themselves as a purely tropical system,” said Cruz. “It is possible, but a lot has to happen perfectly.”
Like Sandy, most hurricanes that travel up toward the Northeast end up becoming a hybrid storm as they collide with colder air, according to Cruz. They typically become classified as “extratropical cyclones” rather than hurricanes.
“The difference between hurricanes and extratropical cyclones is their source of power. Hurricanes use the very warm waters of the tropics to act as a heat engine of sorts,” Cruz said. “Extratropical cyclones use the clash between hot air to the south and cold air to the north and aloft to create their power.”
Most hurricanes that head north along the East Coast eventually curve out east to the Atlantic Ocean before reaching New York, according to the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency report. Sandy was different. It encountered two other weather systems along the way, which helped create the “superstorm” it became known as, and steered it west toward the New York City area, the report said.
When Sandy made landfall, its tropical storm-force winds extended 1,000 miles – three times the size of a typical hurricane, according to the report.
“It was those winds, as well as the storm’s low pressure, that were responsible for its catastrophic storm surge,” the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency report said. “Because Sandy came at the coast of New York at a perpendicular angle, its counterclockwise onshore winds drove the surge—and the surge’s large, battering waves—directly into the city’s coastline.”
Although Sandy wasn’t the strongest storm in New York City’s history in terms of wind speeds, its size and its destruction were unprecedented, resulting in an estimated $19 billion in damages to the area, according to the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency report.
The strongest hurricane on record to hit near New York City was the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, according to Cruz. The “Long Island Express Hurricane,” as it’s known locally, made landfall in Bellport on Long Island as a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph.
Although New York hasn’t been hit by a stronger hurricane since the Great New England Hurricane, Cruz warned that it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.
“Just because we do not see anything written in the history books of a Category 5 hurricane making its way into the tri-state region, does not mean we will not get one,” Cruz said. “We know the waters of the ocean are warming up as a result of climate change and that in turn will increase the opportunity for more intense tropical cyclones down the road.”
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