NEW YORK – A potentially record-breaking nor’easter is set to pummel the East Coast with wind, snow and rain Friday, putting billions of dollars of coastal real estate at risk from “unprecedented flooding.”
While upwards of a foot of snow may fall across interior New York, Pennsylvania and northern New England, the storm’s most dangerous aspects will likely be the high tides and strong winds due to start early Friday and continue through Saturday. Hurricane-strength winds may even strike the waters around Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and gusts of as much as 65 miles per hour may reach inland areas.
“This could be one of those storms that goes into the record books,” said Kim Buttrick, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Taunton, Mass. “This is a very dangerous storm.”
In January, a powerful storm drove tides in Massachusetts to their highest on record, flooding parts of Boston as well as its northern and southern suburbs. That record might fall by Saturday, Buttrick said. A combination of rising seas, higher-than-normal tides because of the full moon and the power of the storm itself could drive tides higher in Boston and the Massachusetts coast.
“Jan. 4 was an unprecedented event, and now we could have a second one,” Buttrick said.
The slow speed of the storm will make matters worse, said Rob Carolan, a meteorologist with Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, N.H. Its progress will be blocked by other weather patterns, preventing it from slipping quickly away into the Atlantic so the storm will be able to pound against the coast.
Buttrick said even as the tides go through the low end of the cycle, water may stay high because the storm’s winds will keep pushing water at the coast.
Tides could rise 3 feet higher than normal in Jamaica Bay in Queens and along southern Long Island, and by as much as 4 feet along the Massachusetts coastline, including Boston Harbor. Waves higher than 20 feet could crash into coastal towns north and south of Boston and on Cape Cod, washing out roads, damaging homes and leaving people stranded “for an extended time,” the National Weather Service said.
In addition to the coastal flooding, heavy rain may send rivers over their banks, the weather service said.
Buttrick said residents should heed evacuation notices and no one should go sightseeing. “We don’t want any casualties,” she said.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has urged residents along the coast to come up with evacuation plans before high tide on Friday. Coastal flood warnings, watches and advisories stretch along the New Jersey coast and as far south as Virginia. More than 1.2 million homes worth more than $468 billion are at risk from coastal flooding in 11 states from Maine to Virginia, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
“Nor’easters can cause higher tides than hurricanes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic,” Ronald Busciolano, a supervisory hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a statement. The agency is sending crews along the coast from Maine to Delaware to monitor the storm.
In addition, utilities are also gathering crews and materials to meet potential widespread power outages caused by winds and heavy snow.
“The heavy rain and snow expected will further saturate the ground and weaken trees, leaving them susceptible to come down in high winds,” said Mike Hayhurst, vice president of electric operations for Eversource Energy, which owns utilities in New England.
The rain may also push rivers and streams out of their banks, causing flooding away from the coastline, Buttrick said.
Several storms this winter have caused more flooding than usual due to slightly different tracks, sharper differences between cold and warm air masses and because there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, said Patrick Burke, a senior branch forecaster for the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md.
The latest storm is being strengthened not only by the sharp gradient of warm and cold air but also record warm spots in the Atlantic. The same thing happened in January, when a winter storm underwent a process known as bombogenesis, with its central pressure – a measure of a its power – dropping 21 millibars in six hours.
Burke said this week’s looming system could become a “bomb cyclone” on Friday, too.
Brian K. Sullivan is a reporter for Bloomberg News.