Five years after Sandy: Communicating hazards still a challenge

Hurricane Sandy in the hours before landfall along the New Jersey coast five years ago

Hurricane Sandy in the hours before landfall along the New Jersey coast five years ago

Five years ago today, I stood among hundreds of stunned New Jersey residents along the battered coast of Belmar. The wind was howling, the sky was gray and the Jersey Shore had been forever changed in the blink of an eye. All up and down Atlantic Ave, as far as the eye could see, there was destruction unlike anything most of us had ever seen. I might as well have been standing in Pensacola the day after Ivan in 2004 – the scene looked almost identical.

If you ask people today what happened five years ago – what caused it – you will get a couple of distinctly different answers: “Hurricane Sandy” or “Superstorm Sandy”; some just refer to the event as “Sandy”.

From a technical standpoint, it was post-tropical cyclone Sandy. I bet no one on the street has ever called it that, not in casual conversation as they reflect on the event that literally changed the policy of how watches and warnings are handled.

Even the subtitle of Scott Mazzella’s book, Surviving Sandy, says “Long Beach Island and the Greatest Storm of the Jersey Shore”.

Storm. Not hurricane. This is hugely important. Why? Because books written about Andrew in 1992, Camille in 1969 or Hugo in 1989 are not ambiguous; those were hurricanes. No question about it. So was Sandy – six hours before landfall.

Even in the days leading up to October 29-30, the media went crazy with the term “Superstorm” – all while Sandy was still very much a hurricane from a technical point of view. Do we blame the media? How about social media? While not nearly the vaunted force it is today, we still had plenty of people utilizing hashtags and other means of adding extraneous adjectives to what should have already been a dangerous enough term: hurricane. Why the word “super”? I think of Superman or Super Bowl – words that are exciting and mean big or better. Maybe that’s just me, but calling a hurricane a “Superstorm” was the beginning of a very bad idea in my opinion.

As Sandy took aim on New Jersey in terms of where the center would cross the coast, many people who lived farther north in New York had no idea of what was coming. People generally do not care about the weather, not like us weather geeks do. If they see that “a hurricane” is forecast to make landfall in Atlantic City, then that’s all they need to know – or so they think. They focus on “it” meaning the center or the eye and do not understand the entire picture of the hazards that are heading their way.

Now, five years later, we have storm surge specific watches and warnings. While it adds to the overall background noise of information, I think it is a great idea and will save lives (probably already has). Sandy was mostly a surge event although yes, the wind caused major damage. In terms of fatalities and the extensive damage at the coast, it was storm surge. People simply didn’t understand what storm surge was and why Sandy was going to deliver a lethal punch of it. Calling Sandy a hurricane the entire time would not have changed that in my opinion, if the center isn’t coming to their location, most people tune out the rest – especially in this day and age.

This must change.

The challenge of educating the public about the entire package of weapons that tropical storms and hurricanes bring is substantial. We have the greatest information sharing tool in history, the Internet, at our disposal – yet people still don’t get the big picture. We share video discussions, info-graphics, key messages, top 5 or 10 lists, etc. etc. etc. and people still say, “I had no idea it would be this bad”. How is this possible? I wish I knew, I really do.

As fate would have it, another powerful storm, in some ways similar to what happened with Sandy (similar but not the same), has blasted through New England with major damage in some areas. We had all the elements of a hurricane: hurricane force winds, storm surge and very heavy rain. Yet it was not a hurricane – no question about it this time. What was it? Was this current storm a “Superstorm”? If not, why? It walloped a huge population center and hundreds of thousands are without power because of it. It will be remembered for a long time I can assure you. Was it communicated properly by the NWS, media and via social media? Was anyone caught by surprise? I guess time will tell. I just found it mildly ironic that on this five year mark of Sandy’s place in history, another storm with the influence of a tropical cyclone (Philippe) has left us wondering once again about how to communicate the hazards of said storm.

The last line of Scott’s book goes like this:

“On the winds of catastrophe, Sandy delivered the same message to a new generation – rebuild, restore and come back stronger and wiser every time you do.”

We have certainly rebuilt and restored along the Jersey Shore and elsewhere after the hurricanes and Superstorms of the recent cycle of hurricane activity.

Are we stronger and wiser, however? That remains to be seen.

M. Sudduth

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Complex, disruptive storm system taking shape

1:35 pm ET October 28

TD 18 is forecast to become a tropical storm and could cross extreme south Florida later this evening and through tonight. Once over the southwest Atlantic, the would-be storm is expected to be pulled in to the larger developing coastal storm that eventually brings significant impacts to a good deal of the Northeast Sunday and in to early Monday. I have the latest on this complex set up in today’s discussion.

M. Sudduth

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93L likely to become a tropical depression or tropical storm soon

2pm ET Friday, October 27

5 Day Tropical Weather Outlook map from the NHC showing the high chance of development for invest area 93L

5 Day Tropical Weather Outlook map from the NHC showing the high chance of development for invest area 93L. Click or tap for full size.

The NHC has upped the chances of development for 93L to 80% now. Upper level winds are just favorable enough for it to organize more and with the system over very warm Caribbean waters, it won’t take much for it to become a depression or storm later today.

A Hurricane Hunter crew is en route to investigate the system and we will know more by 5pm ET about what is happening and whether or not a depression or storm has in fact formed. Interests from the Caymans, to Cuba and the Florida Keys should be prepared for squally weather with heavy rain and gusty winds at times as the system passes by. Later tomorrow it looks as though what ever this becomes will cross through portions of the Bahamas on its way out in to the open Atlantic.

Also, part of the heat and moisture from the Caribbean connection to 93L will get pulled in to an approaching strong trough of low pressure – the one I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post – and is likely to bring a potent storm to parts of New England later this weekend.

I take a look at this and more in my latest video discussion posted below:

M. Sudduth

 

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Significant storm likely to develop for East Coast this weekend

9:30 AM ET Thursday, October 26

It is a darn good thing that 93L is just an area of interest and not a hurricane, let alone a major hurricane. Aside from the obvious reasons, let’s just say that if it were a hurricane, we would be talking about the potential for a massive storm to impact the East Coast this weekend. As it is, with what’s down in the Caribbean now, we’re talking about a fairly significant event taking shape.

The current situation

Invest areas 93L in the western Caribbean and 92E in the Southeast Pacific

Invest areas 93L in the western Caribbean and 92E in the Southeast Pacific

Right now, invest area 93L is hugging the coast of Nicaragua and this is keeping it from developing further for the time being. It is also worth noting that there is another area of disturbed weather, east Pacific invest area 92E, that is close enough to the Caribbean system that I believe it is also keeping a lid on development since the two weather systems are competing for available latent heat energy within the same general area. In fact, the NHC indicates that 92E has the chance of becoming a tropical depression at some point over the next few days over the southeast Pacific, rather close to the coast of Central America.

As for 93L, over the next couple of days there is a small window of opportunity for it to become better organized and perhaps attain tropical depression status. In this case, don’t focus on the meteorological term – it won’t matter much – the impacts are coming and they have the potential of being substantial for a large swath of real estate from the Florida Keys up to Maine.

Tomorrow through the weekend

00z ECMWF snap shot showing the low pressure area developing quickly off the DE/NJ coast this coming Sunday

00z ECMWF snap shot showing the low pressure area developing quickly off the DE/NJ coast this coming Sunday (graphic courtesy of tropicaltidbits.com)

As the disturbance lifts northward tomorrow and in to Saturday, it will bring periods of heavy rain and squalls to Cuba, the Florida Keys and in to south Florida. It will be breezy too with winds gusting to 35 mph or higher in some exposed locations, especially in the Keys. Obviously, this will not be nearly as big a deal as a tropical storm or hurricane but in the wake of Irma, any disruptive weather is enough to rattle nerves and maybe knock out power to some areas weakened by the September hurricane.

The next phase of the event begins to take shape Sunday as a strong and deep trough of low pressure moves in to the East with a lot of upper level energy associated with it.

In the meantime, over the Atlantic, the tropical heat and energy associated with 93L will become part of the equation and make for a stormy period as Sunday progresses.

As it looks right now, the ECMWF model has the best handle on things and shows a potent area of low pressure moving up the East Coast, strengthening as it does so, especially off of Delaware and New Jersey. This low, combined with the approach of the strong upper level energy and trough, will likely result in more heavy rain for parts of the region, extending in to New England late in to the weekend and early Monday. How much, how long and exactly where remains to be seen but the set up is there for a lot of rain and wind – along with coastal impacts.

The biggest unknown right now is exactly how much of the heat energy of 93L gets pulled in to the upper level trough. The more it all phases together in to one intense low pressure area, then the higher the impacts will be. If the energy remains just offshore and ahead of the trough, we’ll see a significant storm but not the powerhouse event that could take place if the whole thing phases. It’s just impossible to know until it’s upon us really – so we’re going to have to wait and see – as usual.

The bottom line here is that a tropical disturbance, which itself has a lot of energy associated with even if it is not a named storm or a hurricane, has the potential of getting “mixed up” with a very strong trough of low pressure and its associated upper level energy to combine in to a powerful coastal storm this weekend.

We still have a day or so to watch as the model guidance flushes out and gives us more details of what to expect but for now, it looks like a moderate chance of a high-impact event taking shape this weekend. Stay tuned!

I’ve posted a video discussion on the situation below:

M. Sudduth

 

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Keeping an eye on the western Caribbean for possible development

1:55 pm ET October 23, 2017

Caribbean Sea satellite photo

Caribbean Sea satellite photo

Not much going on in the Atlantic Basin as we start the week. However, we are watching an area of disturbed weather in the western Caribbean Sea for possible development over the next several days.

As of this afternoon, the NHC is indicating only a 40% chance of further development over the next five days. The global models are not too bullish on much happening with this system although if it does happen to gather itself and bundle the available energy, we could see a tropical storm form from the larger area of low pressure (also known as low pressure gyre). It is getting a little late in the season to be expecting much but we will keep an eye on the system just in case.

I have posted a new video discussion covering this topic and more – check it out here::

 

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