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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Storm surge is major threat from hurricanes

Storm Surge From Hurricane Isaac in 2012

Storm Surge From Hurricane Isaac in 2012 as captured from one of our older generation Surge Cams. Top image is before Isaac on August 28 while the bottom image is during the height of the surge along the Mississippi coast. The water rose several feet at this location along Gulfport Harbor.

This week is Hurricane Preparedness Week and as such, each day has a topic related to hurricanes and being prepared.

Today’s topic is storm surge – one of the most devastating effects from a tropical cyclone. Historically, storm surge kills more people than any other tropical cyclone hazard. We saw a period of time from 1970 through 2004 when few people lost their lives due to surge. Then, in 2005, Katrina changed all of that with scores of lives lost due to surge from the Missisisppi Sound as well as the catastrophic flooding from storm surge coupled with the failure of New Orleans’ levee system.

Sadly, the trend continued, though not to the same scale fortunately, with Sandy last October as storm surge swept in to areas along the New York and New Jersey coasts. A vast majority of the damage from Sandy was the result of storm surge and battering waves.

Most people do not understand storm surge and how it can affect them. Almost all evacauations in a hurricane are because of the threat of storm surge flooding. Studies are done to predict traffic flow, behavior patterns and response to evacuation orders. In most cases, people will wait as long as possible to determine whether or not the threat to their immediate location is substantial enough to warrant the trouble of leaving. While this is an understandble trait of human nature, it could lead to deadly consequences.

Let’s take hurricane Ike from 2008 as an example. It was an especially large hurricane that generated an enormous surge of water that was quite literally pushed towards the northwest Gulf of Mexico coastline. The NHC had forecast Ike to become an intense category three hurricane for several days before its landfall near Galveston on September 13. Yet, thousands of people remained on Galveston Island despite A) the city’s infamous history with hurricanes and B) the warning that people would face “certain death” if they remained behind.

If someone told you that if you remained in your car on a hot July day with the power off and the windows rolled up that you would face certain death, what would you do? I am guessing that 100% of you would not remain in your car under those conditions. Why? Because you know what will happen. You have felt the car get really hot before and have the A/C to fire up in order to make it tolerable. The point is, you’ve experienced the conditions that could kill you before yet you have the tool (A/C) to mitigate the worst from happening. It is that experience with a very hot car that has taught you not to remain inside of it for any length of time during warm to hot days.

The same cannot be said of storm surge. Most people who live along the coast have never experienced a storm surge from a tropical storm or hurricane. Thus, they have no idea what they’re dealing with. They have not seen it with their own eyes and do not grasp the concept of how much energy moving water has. They are shown maps on TV and the Internet and are told to evacuate. Often times, most people do not unless they sense danger.

I suppose that as Ike approached, some people did not sense any danger and chose to remain behind. The resulting storm surge as at least 20 feet high in some locations with thousands of homes either destroyed or seriously damaged by the flood waters. Lives were lost because people did not evacuate though scores of lives were indeed saved because of adequte warnings and people heeding them.

I guess since seeing is believing that we have to do something to further convince people of how bad storm surge can be.

As I announced in a blog post a few months ago, we are going to provide a publicly accessible, brand new, completely redesigned “Surge Cam” that will stream live video from the teeth of the next hurricane and its storm surge. We have been using an older technology for the past seven seasons that ended with Sandy last October. Now, we have new and more effecient technology that will allow us to place un-manned cameras anywhere we wish with almost no risk to either ourselves or to the equipment. We’ve made a decision to make one of these units available through our public Ustream channel at no cost to those who watch. The idea is to show people the effects of storm surge and convince them through live video that storm surge is a lethal, destructive force. We hope to place the Surge Cam in an area where a significant impact from storm surge is expected. The new camera systems last for at least 30 hours now, allowing us more time to place them in locations that no humans have any business being in as the hurricane and its surge sweep in. Perhaps this will help to motivate people to evacuate and take the appropriate measures to mitigate loss to property as well.

We will have three other Surge Cams dedicated to our Client Services members – after all, it’s their funding that supports this effort in the first place. We just thought it would serve the public and local officials, as well as the media, to provide one Surge Cam feed free of charge. Thanks to advances in technology, we can do that starting this season. Once we have a threat of a landfall, I’ll post the URL of the Surge Cam in a blog post and on our Twitter and Facebook pages. People are encouraged to share and embed the player as much as they wish. Anyone in the media may use the feed on-air and on their websites as they see fit. Just credit HurricaneTrack.com please – that’s all we ask.

It looks like a very busy season ahead. I hope that folks along the coast, especially newcomers, do their part to better understand the risk from tropical storms and hurricanes. For more info, including excellent video resources, check out the NHC’s preparedness page here: NHC Hurricane Preparedness

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Making progress after Sandy

A common sight now in gift shops along the Jersey Shore is this tee-shirt, "Restore the Shore"

A common sight now in gift shops along the Jersey Shore is this tee-shirt, “Restore the Shore”

I spent the day last Friday re-tracing my steps in New Jersey where I was during Sandy last October. It is always an odd feeling to come back to an area that I feel like I have so much invested in emotionally. I knew no one when I arrived early in the morning of October 29, 2012. Now, I have new friends; connections made because of Sandy.

I re-visited the Long Branch and Belmar areas first since it was these two areas that I spent the most time in as Sandy’s effects turned the region in to a disaster area in less than a day. Then, I ventured south to Seaside Heights where it looks as if time has been put in to slow-motion mode. I’ll elaborate on that more later.

My day actually began in New Brunswick where I ended up the night of October 29 after Sandy finally came ashore in southern New Jersey. I was amazed at the amount of tree damage still evident though most of the obvious scars have been removed for the most part. It’s easy to see where there were power failures as brand new power poles, complete with shiny new transformers, pepper the landscape. Ah how I remember watching the grid go down as each brilliant flash of light set the sky ablaze with an eerie blue-white-green hue; a sure sign that more people were just plunged in to darkness.

I traveled along the Raritan River which surged out of its banks, flooding homes and leaving roadways impassable that night. I should know, I had to deal with that in trying to get to my hotel. Had I not been there to see it in person, I may not have believed that storm surge from Sandy had penetrated that far inland – but I was and it did. To me, it still seemed like a wild, fever-induced dream. Being back on this incredible spring day with so much growth and green foliage around me was surreal. It’s like Sandy was already a long lost memory on the landscape.

My next destination was Long Branch. It was here that I set up a remote cam unit- now we call them “Surge Cams”. The boardwalk was intact again though sand and debris was still easy to spot; a telltale calling card of a significant surge event. All around me was the sound of construction. Whether it was bulldozers on the beach or renovation crews trying to bring homes and businesses back to as close as they could to pre-Sandy conditions, the area was alive with rebuilding and moving on.

Not far north of the cam unit location lies the Monmouth Beach Club. This is where I set up the weather station (see the screen shot from our app which captured the last image from the web cam attached to the weather station). Here too was a flurry of activity as construction crews worked like bees in a hive to get things ready for the summer season which was quickly approaching.

It’s the tourist dollars of the summer months that really drives the economic engine down along the coast. It’s no different than say, Orange Beach, AL or Pensacola Beach, FL or Wrightsville Beach, NC. The beach brings the people and with them comes the dollars. There was a sense of urgency in the air as the sand was slipping through the hour glass, about to usher in a new season along the Jersey Shore.

Next up was Belmar. This is where I had one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in a hurricane event. I met several people here who relied on me for up to the minute information during the height of Sandy’s onslaught that night. It was by total coincidence that this happened. I was in the right place at the right time and it really helped them to understand what was about to happen, especially with the incoming surge. For my part, the boro saw to it that I met New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie the day after. It was an incredible honor and one that I will not soon forget.

So here I was a little more than six months later. I met up with Belmar police captain Drew Huisman who gave me a tour of the small but diverse city. The recovery efforts are nothing short of remarkable. He told me back in December that they wanted the boardwalk open by Memorial Day. It will open this Wednesday and is a marvel to see in person. Belmar did not wait for aid to come to them. Instead, the leadership stepped up, the people worked together and made it happen. The results are stunning. The city is alive and bustling with so much activity as people come back to the coast that Capt Huisman will need more than two dozen new recruits soon to keep up. Sure there is a long way to go but from the marina along the Shark River to the waterfront bordering the Atlantic, Belmar is back on its feet with an awesome new boardwalk and businesses ready for the summer crowds. It is my opinion that Belmar serves as an example of working together as quickly as possible to make positive things happen. It is a monumental task to come back from an event like Sandy. Ask anyone in Waveland or Bay St. Louis or New Orleans about that. The more people can come together and work together, the less painful the recovery process can be. Want proof? Visit Belmar this year…you’ll see first hand.

Sadly, the trip south was somewhat depressing. It’s like time had stopped in the days after October 29th, 2012. In areas such as Mantoloking, Bay Head and Seaside Heights, the toll of Sandy’s relentless storm surge and pounding waves was still evident more often than not. The washed out shells of homes still lay pretty much where they settled after Sandy slammed ashore last October. It’s not that people aren’t trying, this as an overwhelming disaster that people simply could not prepare for- not on this scale. Each municipality is different with each having their own set of challenges that have been waiting ever since that fateful day.

I was also pleased to see my friend Kathleen Koch, former CNN correspondent and author of Rising from Katrina, was working with mayors and other political figures from Mississippi in conjunction with mayors from various New Jersey towns who are all going through similar situations – just eight years apart. Her idea is to get people together who have been through disasters such as Katrina and Sandy to allow them to help one another avoid pitfalls and endure the relentless stress that the aftermath leaves. This is a great idea and I can only hope it takes off and spreads beyond the hurricane zones as there is much potential from learning from others.

Everyone I have met had a positive, can-do work ethic; knowing that the only way to full recovery is to focus on the future and not dwell on the misery that Sandy left behind. In that regard, the coast will be re-built stronger and thus a new and improved Jersey Shore will rise from the sucker punch that Sandy delivered to the region.

I am proud of what I saw, I really am. People have come together and have done what needs to be done.

Here is a video clip that I shot last Friday from Belmar, NJ:

Next up: NOAA’s Hurricane Season Outlook later this week.

M. Sudduth

 

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East Pacific hurricane season begins today as does my trip to New York and New Jersey

East Pacific invest 90-E

East Pacific invest 90-E

It’s May 15 and that means the east Pacific hurricane season is now underway. Right on cue, a tropical depression appears to be forming well off the coast of Mexico where waters are warm enough to support the deep convection noted in satellite imagery.

All of the forecast models indicate that the developing low pressure area will move westward and away from the Mexican coastline over the next several days.

The east Pacific season begins two weeks ahead of the Atlantic season though both basins see about the same amount of activity per 100 years during this time of the year – so I am not certain as to why the Atlantic season does not officially begin until June 1. In any case, we do have something to monitor on this opening day of the east Pacific season though it poses no threat to land areas at this time.

In other news – I am heading up to New York and New Jersey beginning later this morning. I have a couple of projects to follow up on in New York City tomorrow and then I am going to travel back to coastal New Jersey where I was when Sandy made landfall. I’ll re-trace my steps in Long Branch and Belmar and might get to travel to other places farther south if time permits.

The unique thing about this trip is that I am going to stream the entire journey live on our public Ustream channel. I want to demonstrate our new “everywhere cam” that we’ll be using for our subscriber site this season. We’ll still have a free live camera streaming but it will be a traditional dash-mounted video camera. This new technology is amazing. There’s no laptop needed and the cam is so small and versatile that I can take it anywhere. The audio is incredible as well. I thought it would be great to test it out while showing anyone viewing a little of the East Coast countryside.

Once I get to the Jersey coast on Friday, you’ll want to tune in and see how things have progressed since Sandy. I’ll provide narration and insight as to what the impacts were and where I was and what I was doing back on October 29 of last year. Watch our Twitter feed for updates as to when something really worthwhile is streaming and then tune in by clicking the link below or simply bookmarking our Ustream channel page: Ustream.tv/hurricanetrack

Click here to watch our live Ustream feed

 

My next post will cover some exciting news about our app which is about to have a major update completed. Plus – is an Android version in the works? Check out the blog on Monday to find out.

M. Sudduth

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The United States hurricane problem: perhaps it is just too big?

In the wake of hurricane Sandy there has been a constant stream of news regarding how ill prepared the affected areas were to deal with the event. Why am I not surprised? Sandy was an enormous storm. It affected people from Florida to Canada to Michigan. I think Sandy, like Katrina before it and Ike after that, sheds light on an area that we need to perhaps come to grips with. We have a serious hurricane problem and it may now be too big to wrangle.

While there certainly could have been more done to ease the situation, there always is, I am not sure what could have been done to make things markedly better after Sandy hit. Aside from putting almost all of our efforts in to hurricane mitigation and education, what else can we do? We know hurricanes are a threat. They offer the most lead time of any major weather disaster and yet we repeat the same mistakes over and over. Maybe they are not mistakes but rather a symptom; a symptom that our problem is now beyond our grasp.

During the 70s and 80s a tremendous amount of coastal building took place. People flocked to the water’s edge and lived their dream life without many hurricanes at all. Then, in 1995, just when the latest economic bubble that burst began inflating, hurricanes became a real problem again. Yet, luck was mostly on our side as most of the nasty hurricanes remained well out to sea, year after year. The luck ran out temporarily in 2004 and big time in 2005. Since then, we have not had a single category three hurricane to strike the U.S. coast. Yet, Sandy, which was not technically a hurricane at landfall, will likely have the largest cost of any storm event in our history. Further more, Sandy did not bring worst case conditions to places like New York City. What we had was a massive event, affecting people across almost a third of the U.S. and look what happened. It overwhelmed the response system. It won’t be the last time either.

Let’s look at Florida. Not a single hurricane of any strength has made landfall in Florida since October of 2005. You talk about a problem waiting to rear its ugly head. Can you imagine the millions of people who have moved to Florida since 2005 who have ZERO hurricane experience? Even though Florida is expected to be hit year after year, no hurricanes have made landfall there in seven years.

Let’s hypothesize for a minute that a large, classic Cape Verde hurricane comes rolling through around West Palm Beach next August. Winds around the eye are blowing at 125 mph – a category three. Do you think for one minute that the response to that disaster will be swift and made to look easy? I can assure you it will overwhelm (there’s that word again) the Sunshine State and tax the surrounding states who send assistance and aid. Why? Because millions of people will be affected across a densely populated area. There is no way that anyone can adequately prepare for something so large and devastating.

Then, after the landfall shock wears off, people will start pointing fingers at each other for lack of response, lack of preparedness and lack of aid.

Let’s look at a completely different scenario that actually happened.

In 1999, hurricane Bret made landfall in Kenedy county, Texas as a category three hurricane. It was a beast, a powerful, well developed Gulf of Mexico hurricane. Total damage was around $30 million. There were no deaths reported. Why is this? Because hardly anyone lives where Bret made landfall. This same type of hurricane striking West Palm Beach would have a completely different outcome. An even larger, more powerful hurricane would amplify matters to the extreme.

As I read blog after blog about Sandy and how warnings of just such an event went unheeded, I can begin to see the real problem. Sandy was more than anyone could handle. We do not live in a world where $30 billion is spent before hand to beef up our infrastructure. Instead, we live in a world that responds with what funding there is when the infrastructure is taken out. I’ve seen it first hand time and time again and the result is always the same: there is never a good outcome to a hurricane disaster.

Yes, progress has been made in areas that were hit by hurricanes such as Katrina and Ike but for the most part, life goes on as if there are no such things as hurricanes. We try to build back bigger and better but Nature always finds a way to knock progress down again, one way or another.

Trying to blame Sandy’s devastation on one or two people is absurd. While it would have been nice to see politicians come out and say all the right things at the right times, the outcome would not have changed much at all. Sandy impacted one of the most populated areas of coastline in America. What did everyone think was going to happen?

The U.S. hurricane problem is now bigger than ever. The good news is that severe hurricanes are extremely rare. However, when they do happen to cross our shores, significant damage is likely. Unless we are willing to implement drastic changes in to our coastal land use, events like Sandy will continue to happen and we will scratch our heads and wonder why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

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