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

Hermine still full of surprises but, fortunately for coastal interests, not the bad kind

NHC track map showing the slow movement of Hermie generally away from the coast of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast

NHC track map showing the slow movement of Hermie generally away from the coast of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast

Remember back on August 18 when 99L was designated just off the coast of Africa? The hurricane social media frenzy went in to over drive as it looked as though this could be “the one”. All of the major global models at one point or another showed substantial development with the possibility of a strong hurricane heading towards the Southeast United States.

As the days went by, it became clear that we would have to wait a little while for 99L to reach a more unstable atmosphere, away from the smothering, dry effects of the Saharan Air Layer or SAL. So we waited….and waited. Nothing happened. Still, most of the models, including the much-praised ECMWF, went on to insist that this would eventually explode over the very warm waters of the Atlantic and possibly end Florida’s hurricane drought with a strike on the SE coast. In fact, the track and intensity began to have eerie similarities to infamous hurricanes of the past. People were getting nervous. Yet, nothing happened. The tropical wave moved along, sputtering with periods of convection coming and going but lacking any significant organization. The probability for development went up to 80% and it seemed like it was only a matter of time. And so we waited.

The global and regional hurricane models continued to generally suggest a powerful hurricane could develop once 99L made it in to the Gulf of Mexico. As the system moved through the Bahamas, it still lacked much structure and no signs of developing. It looked like it might never get going. It was a bust for the models as a whole since all of them at one time or another had their moments of over-developing the wave in to something potentially historic. Lucky for coastal residents of the Gulf Coast, it never happened.

Finally, once 99L moved in to the southeast Gulf of Mexico, it showed signs of living up to some of its potential. All of a sudden, it looked like we might actually have a tropical storm or even a hurricane to deal with for the first time in almost eleven years along the Florida coast.

It took until the afternoon of August 31 for 99L to become tropical storm Hermine. It was now just a day and a half from making landfall in the Big Bend area but it wasn’t very organized and so the threat of it becoming a hurricane was not very high. Wrong again.

It wasn’t until Thursday, just hours before landfall, that Hermine began to strengthen. It did so fairly quickly and managed to become a hurricane around mid-afternoon Thursday. The threat of a significant storm surge for the Big Bend region was looming large. I set out cameras in St Marks and on Cedar Key, awaiting the arrival of the much talked about first hurricane since before the iPhone was invented.

Hermine made landfall roughly 12 hours after it became a hurricane and brought with it flooding rain, damaging surge, power outages and now a new threat: the chance it would strengthen over the Atlantic, just off the coast of Delaware and New Jersey and then hook back, similar to what Sandy did in 2012 but not as dramatic.

All of a sudden it looked like Labor Day weekend, the last big hurrah for beach lovers up and down the East Coast, would be ruined. The threat of “dangerous storm surge” was the headline as the wind field of the now post-tropical storm was expanding and could push water in to areas such as Hampton Roads and eventually the Delaware and New Jersey coasts. It didn’t look good at all and this was the worst time for it to happen as millions of people were flocking to the coast before saying farewell to summer.

I packed up the Tahoe with four live camera units plus my weather station and 5 meter wind tower. I was ready. It looked like 50 to 60 mph winds could be experienced along parts of the Jersey shore accompanied by damaging waves and storm surge, especially during high tide cycles. I departed Wilmington, NC around 5pm yesterday. The signals were beginning to become mixed the further north I drove. It now looked like Hermine would move farther off the coast and in fact it was. The track it was taking was more east than north, putting it at a greater distance away from the Mid-Atlantic. This was not expected but was a good sign for New Jersey especially.

As the night wore on and I got closer to my destination of Vineland, the 00z ECWMF came out. I checked in to my hotel and took a look. East. Hermine was going more east. This reduced the threat of a significant surge event for the Mid-Atlantic. I figured that the 5am advisory package would show a track farther away from the coast. I hit the pillow and logged about 6 hours of sleep.

I woke up to good news. My trip to New Jersey will be more about covering the beach erosion and some high tide effects than anything else. For coastal New Jersey and the people who call it home or vacation here, the news is much better now. The weekend will be salvaged and not a total loss. The forecast track shifted a little more away from the coast on the 11am advisory but the threat of storm surge still remains – for now. All in all, it probably won’t be nearly as bad as feared just 36 hours ago. The guidance changes constantly and meandering storms, hurricanes and anything in between always pose a challenge for forecasters. I just go with the flow and if it looks like a high impact event, I will be there. People want to know what the effects are and that’s what I do best – show the impact.

In this case, I will show the impact from a unique perspective. I am going to place two live cams out in Brigantine later today – one on the seawall and the other on the back bay. Both cams will be low angle shots – close to the water. Any rise or wave action will be easy to see and hear. You’ll also see that overall, it’s not too bad. The surf conditions are not good for swimming since rip currents will be common. Otherwise, Hermine will leave the scene with one final poke at the weather geek community. No one wants to see a disaster unfold but when the guidance suggests one is imminent, everyone pays attention. Hermine gave us glimpses of an alternate future that never came to pass on the scale that it could have been. No hurricane in Miami. No Katrina Part II. No Sandy Part II.

Instead, the reality is we had a hurricane landfall in Florida this past Friday in the early morning hours. It was bad for some, not so much for others. Hermine reminded us once again what hurricanes are capable of even if those memories fade quickly in this ever-changing news cycle world that we live in. For meteorologists it was a massive headache. The public needs to depend on forecasts, even if the forecast calls for complete devastation. Trying to convey risk and uncertainty is always challenging. On the one hand, something obvious like Katrina or Andrew makes people take notice but the end result is awful. It’s the situations like Hermine, where the potential is there for something very bad to happen yet it probably won’t, that pose the biggest challenges. The line between over stating the danger and being caught off guard is razor thin sometimes. At the end of the day, all we can do as mere humans is to try our best.

Hermine will turn away from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast but not before an agonizingly slow drift just far enough offshore to keep the worst from happening. Of course, we’re talking about the next 72 hours or so. Remember what we thought would happen with Hermine just 48 hours ago? Nothing is ever certain with weather. The situation looks markedly better but it’s not done yet. Beach erosion, rough surf, rip currents and some periods of strong winds will make for a less than ideal Labor Day along the coast. As long as no more surprises are waiting to be sprung by Hermine, it will end up being remembered more for its forecast challenges than a legacy of damage and loss of life.

I will be out later this afternoon to set up a pair of live cams in the Brigantine area to show what effects there are. The morning high tide tomorrow could be somewhat dramatic – we’ll just have to wait and see. Either way, it’s great to be back in New Jersey where I have made a lot of friends in recent years….all due 100% to the weather.

M. Sudduth 12:20 pm ET Sept 4

Hermine saga continues with major impacts expected for Mid-Atlantic

Tracking map showing the slow moving path of Hermine off the Mid-Atlantic coast this coming week

Tracking map showing the slow moving path of Hermine off the Mid-Atlantic coast this coming week. Click for full size.

I am back in my office now in North Carolina where I am also gathering more equipment, charging battery packs and getting things ready for another field mission – this time, in New Jersey.

Hermine made landfall as a category one hurricane in Florida in the early morning hours of Friday and brought with it a swath of minor to moderate damage, power outages, storm surge and very heavy rain. The effects were felt from Florida to points north up the I-95 corridor in to eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia. It’s not over yet, not by a long shot.

A bizarre transition is taking place with Hermine that will infuse the storm with energy from the atmosphere combing with the tremendous amount of heat that the storm is releasing due to its tropical warm core. This will lead to a larger storm system off the Mid-Atlantic states that it poised to sit there for several days and send enormous waves and high winds towards the coast. This storm has the potential of rivaling the damage from Sandy back in 2012 but not everywhere along the East Coast. Let me explain.

No two hurricanes are ever exactly alike but we can see similarities between them. Sandy was a unique, late season storm that came from the Atlantic towards the New Jersey coast, pushing unimaginable amounts of seawater ahead of it. We saw the results and will never forget those images.

Hermine is different in some ways but the same in others. First off, it’s early September, the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. Water temps of the East Coast are very warm compared to late 2012’s season and above normal for ANY season. This will allow Hermine to strengthen back to a hurricane and begin to pile up the water along the coast from the Tidewater region of Virginia up the Delaware and New Jersey coasts and possibly in to southern New England when all is said and done.

The one major and very important difference to take note of is the fact that Sandy ultimately made landfall in New Jersey – Hermine is forecast to stall off the coast but close enough to pound the area with near hurricane-force winds along the beaches, high surf, periods of rain and a relentless on-onslaught of waves and storm surge. Beach erosion and over wash will be a certainty for the barrier islands and as water levels rise, some homes and businesses will be inundated with water. I would not be shocked to see 6 to 8 feet of water rise in some locations. I wish I could pinpoint exactly where that might occur but as the NWS points out in their discussion, even minor changes in track and strength can have huge impacts on the effects.

The bottom line is this: Hermine is not done yet and poses a serious threat to life and property for portions of the Mid-Atlantic coast all the way up in to the Northeast. Unlike Sandy, Hermine is not forecast to come inland. This will mainly be a coastal issue with only limited impacts for inland locations. It could be several days before the storm, which is forecast to become a hurricane again, moves on out in to the open Atlantic and away from the United States.

I am preparing to head up to New Jersey from North Carolina later today. I will bring with me one state of the art weather station to set up along the coast along with four of my unmanned cameras. You may have seen the incredible live video from the one I deployed in Cedar Key on Friday. The storm surge ripped off a huge piece of wooden deck/walkway and sent it crashing in to the camera itself, knocking it off the pole it was mounted to. The battering from the waves eventually caused the cam to shut off but not before revealing the danger and destructive power of storm surge. I went back and recovered the camera yesterday fully intact and operational. The Pelican case it is housed in did its job and protected everything inside. I will bring that same camera with me to New Jersey.

My plan will be to deploy the four cams along the coast of New Jersey from the Cape May area north to include Brigantine for sure and then two other locations that I will work on as I make my way north. I want to be able to show you the immediate coast where the waves will be but also have a camera or two in the back bays of the region to capture the rise of the water with each high tide cycle. All of the cameras will be available to view at no cost right here on the site. I will post the links once they are operational beginning tomorrow morning.

The weather data will feed in to our app, Hurricane Impact. The data updates in real time every minute with wind speed and gust info plus the air pressure. There is also a pressure sensor that sends the air pressure reading each minute as well. And to top it off, the weather station set up has its own camera to send a picture to the app every minute, giving you a look at the area where the station is deployed.

I will be posting updates from the road to the video section of the app so be sure to check that often as I will be keeping the information updated several times per day.

I will post an in-depth video discussion on Hermine and what to expect in the Mid-Atlantic through the Northeast by Noon ET today.

M. Sudduh 10AM ET Sept 3

Lightning? Static discharge? Something interesting in last week’s blizzard

Wanted to post the video that I produced which shows what appears to be some kind of electric discharge, maybe similar to lightning, during the blizzard last weekend in New Jersey.

The 15 second video shows blowing snow with the Chevy Tahoe in the shot, along with the boardwalk in Belmar, NJ. It was around 10:08 pm ET Friday night, January 22. Check out the video and see what you think.


Damaging storm forecast to rock parts of East Coast

Winter is about to make a grand appearance for people in many states east of the Mississippi River and it won’t be all fun and games – not by a long shot.

Energy coming in from the Pacific (outlined in gray) will drop south and east over the coming days and become a strong coastal storm

Energy coming in from the Pacific (outlined in gray) will drop south and east over the coming days and become a strong coastal storm

After a very warm December and tranquil start to the winter storm season, it looks as though time will run out and things will turn nasty later this week. The culprit is a low pressure area still over the Pacific just off of California and Oregon that is forecast by the major global computer models to dive south and east for a date with destiny. I know that sounds rather over the top but what happens to that piece of energy over the coming days is quite remarkable.

By Friday morning, the evolution of the pattern will be such that snow will begin to break out across parts of North Carolina and Virginia. By this point in time, the energy from the Pacific has carved out a sharp trough of low pressure over the Mississippi Valley region – indicating a lot of energy gathering in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a surface low will develop in eastern North Carolina by Friday afternoon that is the match that lights the fire. From there, things become very interesting and even concerning as the storm begins to fester over the warm water of the western Atlantic.

GFS depiction of the coastal storm and all of its impacts affecting many states along the East Coast and inland

GFS depiction of the coastal storm and all of its impacts affecting many states along the East Coast and inland

All of the available model guidance suggests that a fairly strong low pressure area will move up the coast from around Cape Hatteras to just offshore of southern New England. This classic Nor’easter pattern is set to bring phenomenal amounts of snow to a lot of people, especially away from the immediate coast. I am no weather winter expert so trying to decipher how much snow and where is beyond my ability. What I do know a lot about is impact and I see this storm as bringing potentially major impacts to people across more than a dozen states.

The snow will be excessive in places, again, impossible to know precisely where. Travel from many major airports will be snarled and people will be stranded. Highway travel will become a matter of taking your life in to your hands when the insane snow begins. Best to just stay put.

The storm will have a lot of energy with it, due in part to the very warm ocean temps as compared to normal. Also, the atmosphere will add plenty of energy and force the storm to intensify and crank up the wind. This will be an especially important impact since high wind coupled with feet of snow never makes for a happy ending.

Along the coast from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and points north, the potential is there for coastal flooding not seen since Sandy in 2012. Luck is not on our side either because the moon is full this weekend and that will add to the overall storm tide that sets up. Make no mistake, this part of the storm will go vastly overlooked by major media who will focus on the blizzard conditions inland. Meanwhile, the coastlines of New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware will get pounded by coastal flooding, potentially causing significant damage in surge prone areas.

Farther north, strong winds and heavy rain in the warmer sector of the storm will mean miserable conditions for areas such as eastern Long Island and southern New England. Once the cold air mixes in enough, the snow will come, though it’s hard to say how much and for how long.

When all is said and done, this storm will likely be compared to some from the mid-1990s that battered the region with near hurricane conditions. Yes, it could be that bad.

Or, it might not be.

As the case seems to always be, enough uncertainty exists this far out ahead of the event that there is still room for something to happen that changes the outcome significantly. Remember, weather is about the probability of something happening in most cases. Right now there is a rather high probability that a major Nor’easter will develop and impact a lot of people. This is not the same as a certainty. Even when it is unfolding on top of the East Coast, timing, track and other factors will determine the final result. I am here to make sure you realize the totality of the storm. It’s not just fluffy white snow that will make for some pretty Instagram pics. Some places will be slammed with more snow than they can handle. Again, coastal areas of the Mid-Atlantic are likely to be blasted by near hurricane force winds and possible major coastal flooding. In other words, as much as we like winter storms (most people do I guess) they are a deadly part of weather not unlike hurricanes and tropical storms. Don’t let the enormous snow totals being thrown about blind you to the other hazards and prepare accordingly.

I am most likely going to head out in to the storm myself with some of the same equipment that we use during hurricane landfalls. I will wait until tomorrow to make the final call and will post more about my plans and what equipment I will be putting out. It should be one heck of a storm and I will do by very best to immerse you in to it like no one else can.

One last bit of advice. I mention the NWS a lot in my blogs when something big is about to go down. If you want straight-up info without any bias thrown in for website clicks or page likes, simply go to and input your ZIP Code. From there scroll down to where you see “Forecast Discussion”. Click that and read it. It’s technical in nature but you can get an inside look at precisely what your LOCAL forecast office is thinking and why. No hype, no agenda, just raw analysis based on the best available data. Use it and be informed!

I’ll have more tomorrow morning.