Though the current track of Hurricane Irene means Long Islanders are in for a wet, windy and certainly dangerous weekend, a local hurricane expert says comparisons to the notorious Great Hurricane of 1938 are a little premature.
For starters, Scott Mandia, professor of meteorology and climatology at Suffolk County Community College, and co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, said, at its worst, Irene would hit Long Island as a Category 2 storm, unlike the "Long Island Express," which smacked into Bayport as a Category 3.
"The 1938 was a Katrina in its size and intensity, but since it was moving to the west it, was like an off-the-charts Category 5," in terms of how it battered Long Island.
That's because the east side of a hurricane is what does the most damage to coastal areas, he said.
"You're adding the forward speed of the storm, which is pushing the surge onto the shore. This is not good."
On Thursday, the National Hurricane Center had Irene on track to hit somewhere between Northern New Jersey and Long Island on Sunday, though it issued a hurricane watch as of 2 p.m. Thursday up to the North Carolina-Virginia border. Even it if it tracked westward, Long Island would still see damaging winds and a storm surge that could erode beaches and swamp flood-prone areas due to the expected 6-foot to 8-foot storm surge.
Rather than compare the storm to 1938, Mandia said Irene's strength and track is closer to Hurricane Gloria, which hit Long Island in 1985 as a much weaker storm.
The Long Island Express also blindsided people, in an age before satellite imaging and 24/7 news gave people days to prepare.
"We were relying on ship reports," Mandia said. "We didn't see it coming."
Mandia, however, said he expects Long Island will see another Category 3 or higher storm make landfall in the future.
"We're actually increasing the chances of that happening, because the earth is getting warmer and sea levels are rising," he said.
"If it were to hit today … you're looking at $50, $60 billion [worth of damage]."
The death toll could be much higher, too, since population throughout the region has ballooned since 1938.
"If you were walking around in the woods, you'd see all the fallen trees were pointing the same way. That was the storm of '38."
With reporting by Paul Squire.