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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