By now we’ve seen the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The pictures don’t do enough justice to the pain and suffering that parts of the northeast have endured. Residents of New Jersey and New York have begun the seemingly improbable task of assessing the damage and cleaning up after one of, if not the most, devastating storms to hit this area of the country. Tempers have begun to flare over relief aid, the NYC Marathon, and other social and economical impacts following the storm.
One thing is certain: preventing tropical cyclones and these “superstorms” is all but impossible. We can’t drop a magic substance in the water to make the storm disappear, or change course. What we can do, however, is try to produce as accurate of a forecast as possible to warn residents of any impending danger.
As North Carolina meteorologist Tim Buckley pointed out in his reaction to the storm, “the forecast for Hurricane Sandy was nearly flawless.” The Monday before landfall (7 days) one computer model, the European forecast model, predicted a large storm impacting the northeast. While only one model, it was worth noting. As the week went on, all the models began to converge on the same catastrophic scenario – a large, “hybrid” storm would most likely cause a lot of problems somewhere in New England or the Mid Atlantic. (Don’t forget that word, “hybrid,” we’ll get back to that in a second).
Needless to say, the final result was indeed awful. Sandy met up with a blocking pattern in the Atlantic, not allowing her to move out to sea like so many other storms have in history. A very large trough was digging through the eastern US accompanied by a large cold air mass and a lot of jet stream energy. All of these things contributed to Sandy’s large size and extremely low atmospheric pressure, just to name a couple of things.
This is where, I believe, the bulk of the problems arose. In “scientific” terms, Sandy was forecast to become this “hybrid” storm, a combination between a tropical entity and a mid-latitude “nor-Easter.” This created a problem for the National Hurricane Center, who is apparently only allowed to forecast “tropical” systems. They issued a press release last Friday stating that when Sandy would transition into the hybrid storm, they would stop issuing advisories, and give that responsibility to the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center and local National Weather Service offices.
The HPC and NWS offices issued “high wind warnings” and similar advisories instead of the NHC issuing “hurricane warnings” because of the forecast transition. Because of this, last Saturday, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg did NOT issue any mandatory evacuations for ANY parts of the city. After much scrutiny from meteorologists using social media and other forecasters such as myself, it seemed like the mayor was downplaying the real threat, and Sunday morning, he eventually issued some evacuations. However, we are becoming aware now after the storm, many people did not heed these evacuations.
The mayor talked about the “category one” storm surge, because in fact, Sandy was “technically” a category one hurricane. That’s what our Saffir-Simpson scale qualified it as, with winds of 80-90 mph. What the Saffir-Simpson scale didn’t say though, was that the storm’s pressure was SIMILAR TO a category 4 hurricane. I stress “similar” because every storm is unique, but for argument’s sake – there’s a ballpark number.
I believe it is the same reason why the mayor was hesitant to call for the evacuations in the first place. “It’s only a category one hurricane” and “we’re only under a high wind warning, we’re under those every so often,” I believe are two common reasons for this.
This brings me to the title of this entry. Yes, “scientifically” Sandy made landfall as a hybrid system and was only a category one hurricane prior to US landfall. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t care about technical scientific terms. Let me say that again; the PUBLIC (the people we as forecasters are meant to protect) DOES NOT CARE about scientific terminology! They want to know what Mother Nature is going to do to them, their lives, and their property.
Would people have acted differently if they were under a hurricane warning instead of a high wind warning? We really won’t know. BUT what I do know is I live in Youngstown, Ohio. I was under the same NWS alerts the people in New Jersey and New York were. Read that sentence a few times to yourself. Does this make sense to you? We had rain, winds around 40 mph, with a gust to just under 70 mph about 50 miles away from us. Why were we under the same warning as people who got winds over 80 mph and had a storm surge over 10 feet?
I believe we need to have either an updated Saffir-Simpson scale that takes ALL effects of tropical cyclones into the category (Isaac was only a category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in LA this summer and had a lot of surge as well, with little precautions done). I also felt as if we should have let “technical” definitions slide with Sandy’s landfall and take our public into consideration. Would issuing a “hurricane warning” for a hybrid tropical-midlatitude system break some man-made rule or something?
I’m only a student, so I can’t really judge professionals who have been in the business for many years. However, I just wonder what MIGHT have been different if different steps were taken to warn the public about Sandy. Sandy wasn’t your “normal” coastal storm. Many factors came together that have never really been seen before (heck, it SNOWED over three feet with this storm in places).
Everything is a learning experience. Today it was made public that the NY Medical Examiner reviewed the 38 deaths in NY and found that 33 of them were due to drowning. This is absolutely awful, and in my humble opinion, preventable, ESPECIALLY since the forecasts were just about spot on!
All critiquing aside, my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has suffered from this tragedy. If you would like to donate to the American Red Cross, here’s how:
Text SANDY to 90999 or
You can follow Craig on Twitter, @ytownwx
Tim Buckley, mentioned in this post, is found on Twitter @TimBuckleyWX
Tim also has a Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/MeteorologistTimBuckley