October 23, 2021

Tropical rains likely to pose flooding hazard in Northeast

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP

Water falls over Jimmy Villarreal, of Galveston, Texas as a wave hits the seawall Wednesday while he was watching the surf stirred up by Hurricane Laura in Galveston, Texas.</p.

Winds from more than 100 wildfires in California will push Hurricane Laura right toward Central New York this weekend.

In fact, those fires and other climate changes make it likely the remnants of a hurricane could land on the greater Cortland area between now and November.

“We could see a lot of flooding,” said Mark Wysocki, a climatologist and meteorology professor at Cornell University.

Similar situations happened in 1972 with Hurricane Agnes dropping between 5 and 8 inches of rain on the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier. It caused minor flooding in Cortland, Marathon and Homer, states a January 1976 U.S. Geological Survey report.

Agnes caused the worst flood damage in the state’s history, killing 24 people and causing $400 million in private property damage, $221 million damage in public property and $84 million in damage to agricultural property.

However, the idea that a hurricane or the remnants of one reaching Cortland and Tompkins County is becoming increasingly likely, Wysocki said. In 2011, the remnants of Hurricane Lee dropped between 4.3 and 5.7 inches of rain on Cortland, causing flooding across the county and a mud slide in the driveway of a Cortlandville home.

Next up for Cortland are remnants of Hurricane Laura, which strengthened to a category 4 storm with 140 mph winds. Meteorologist Adam Gill, with the National Weather Service in Binghamton, said remnants of Laura will be sucked into a low depression coming off the Great Lakes, causing heavy rainfall later Friday into Saturday morning.

However, due to a lack of rain this summer, Gill said the ground “should be able to absorb the rain” and the potential for flooding is low.

But while flooding from this storm isn’t likely, future storms may not be so kind, and we can expect to see more of them, Wysocki said.

This year could break a record or at least tie with 2005 for most named storms. Typically, hurricane season sees 12 named storms.

“Right now, they are forecasting 19 to 25 named storms,” Gill said. “We are running ahead of 2005.”

A tropical depression is named when its sustained winds reach 35 mph or more. It becomes a hurricane when sustained wind speeds are 74 mph or more.

This year in particular, the sea is warmer along the Gulf of Mexico and in the Carribean, and that creates perfect conditions for a depression to grow into a hurricane, Wysocki said.

“Eighty-six degrees, that’s bathwater out in the Caribbean,” he said.

Match that with steering winds coming from the West Coast and it could mean more storms moving toward the Northeast.

Wysocki said all of this means counties like Cortland should create plans to deter flooding and have emergency responses ready for devastating floods.

“Otherwise, you’re going to have destruction like Katrina,” he said. “Are you going to have people sitting on freeways and rooftops?”

“The county has a hazard mitigation plan that is currently being updated,” said Dan Dineen, the recently retired county planning director who is staying on until his replacement is hired. “The plan addresses major rain events and the potential for flooding. The county Emergency Response and Communication Department was the lead in developing this plan and is leading the update as well.”

Courtney Metacalf, Cortland County’s assistant director of emergency response and communications, could not be reached for comment.