On the evening of September 3, 1821, the seemingly impossible became real: a Category 2 hurricane collided head-on with New York City. Already the country’s most populated city, New York had also just become the first to surpass a population of 100,000. The results of the Great September Gale were devastating: it filled cellars and collapsed wharves, decimated buildings and sank ships, all of which brought the metropolis to its knees. The storm also damaged our collective psyche: for the first time in recorded history, New Yorkers were forced to confront not only the fact that they were at risk for a direct hurricane strike, but also that they were woefully unprepared for the resulting disaster.
Over the next 191 years, our country lost sight of that dangerous truth. We continued to build on floodplanes and in surge zones; indeed, we located the very commercial heart of our nation in that contested space. Two years ago, Sandy reminded us just how deadly a decision that was.
But here’s the most terrifying thing of all: that storm could have been a lot worse.
Earlier this week, Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurer, issued a report entitled The Big One: The East Coast’s USD 100 Billion Event. The 21 page study uses many of the same weather models employed by NOAA and other meteorological offices to predict storm intensity, track, and resulting surge: all part of an attempt to anticipate just how badly the United States would be devastated in an event like the 1821 hurricane. Their results were grim: should another Great September Gale strike, we could very well experience damages exceeding $107 billion—making any such storm the costliest to hit the eastern seaboard.
This report didn’t calculate the loss of human life or fragile shoreline, which would undoubtedly be greater than any of us are prepared to bear. As a resinsurer, Swiss Re is responsible for protecting the insurance companies that issue our homeowner and business policies, helping them to manage financial risk that would be too great otherwise. And the implications of their report are clear: an event like the 1821 hurricane would cripple not only the communities hit by the storm, but also the fragile network of insurers we rely on for our collective financial well being. Recovering from that kind of devastation may prove even more difficult than rebounding from any environmental ruin brought by the storm as well.
The question we all need to ask is how can we prepare for that kind of ruin?