Sandy the super-unusual, combo hurricane/nor'easter on the unheard-of track is coming together as forecast. The computer forecast models predicted that the winds would spread out in the nor'easter part of the storm, and the hurricane part of the storm would struggle a bit then recover. Tropical-storm force winds have spread out to the Virginia coast, and the tropical part of the system looks only so-so on the satellite.
Normally we would say the fat lady has sung, and get ready to fold up our hurricane hunters and go home. But, those same reliable computer models are saying that Combo Sandy is going to get reinvigorated by the jet stream while still getting energy from the Gulf Stream tomorrow and Monday, and get stronger and bigger. And then pounce on the Northeast.
The bigness of the circulation means big problems in at least two ways. A tremendous area from Canada to North Carolina to Ohio will be getting high winds from Sandy at the same time. That means trees down, power out, and a lot of miserable people in the chilly weather after the storm. And more importantly, the amount of energy the storm puts in the ocean water goes up dramatically with the diameter of the high-wind area. Not to mention, Sandy is already one of the biggest hurricanes on record.
When Sandy moves toward the coast, that high-energy water comes with it, which means high storm surge and stunningly high waves.
If the center of the circulation lands on the Jersey Shore, as looks most likely, the focus on that energy is going to be on North Jersey, New York Harbor, and the south shore of Long Island. The National Weather Service in New York is predicting waves 10 to 20 feet high on the south-facing beaches. Holy crap!
Did I also mention that's on top of the storm surge, which is forecast to raise the ocean level 4 to 8 feet above normal? And did I also mention that there's a full moon and the storm's peak is expected to be around high tide? Holy triple whammy!
That NJ/NYC/Long Island elbow is like a catchers mitt for storm surge, on the rare occasion that a big storm comes at it from the southeast or east... just like Sandy's forecast. The only thing that can stop extremely high water with battering waves from affecting the region is for the forecast to be wrong.
If the forecast is even mostly right, the ocean water will come in higher than during Hurricane Irene, which came within a foot of doing serious damage to NYC infrastructure. And that brings up the incomprehensibly inexplicable news conference by Mayor Bloomberg.
I'm NOT saying that the Mayor should have ordered an evacuation. That's for him to decide, and it's a tough decision. But to play down the biggest storm to come along in years - if the forecast is even close - seems bizarrely out of character. There's no upside in this everything-is-rosy approach. He could have expressed concern for the people whose houses are going to get smashed along the coast, but said AT THIS TIME he was going to hold off on any evacuation orders. A statement like that gives him room to maneuver and people get the message that preparation is required.
The normally well-oiled machine that is the Bloomberg administration seems to have slipped a communications cog.
And in a possibly related cog-slipping development, the National Weather Service decided NOT to issue a Hurricane Watch for the Northeast coastline... are you ready for this... because it would be confusing to switch from that to a Coastal Flood Watch and a High Wind Watch after the storm - which will come ashore with hurricane-force winds - morphs into another kind of storm according to the meteorology dictionary.
Whether the missing Hurricane Watch sent the Mayor off-kilter, we'll see. But the criticism came hot and heavy... enough that the Weather Service wrote up a big media release to explain why the clearest possible communications is a bad thing.
I grant that a technical reading of the "rules" says that you can't put up a Hurricane Watch and a Coastal Flood Watch and a High Wind Watch at the same time. But I'm betting the rules didn't envision a super-mega-combo freak of a storm slamming into the most populated part of the country. When all hell is breaking loose, sometimes you've got to break a few rules to do the right thing.
There will be a whole lot of talk about this when the storm is over. Hopefully that will result in a communication policy that meets the world-class standards of the forecasting that goes on at the Hurricane Center and at Weather Service offices all over the country.
The bottom line... let's all get on the same page. The forecast calls for a massive, destructive storm to affect tens of millions of people. If the forecast is wrong, hooray. But so far it's been right, and the odds are this is going to be really bad for a lot of people. Everybody's goal should be to be sure that as many people as possible are as ready and aware as they can be.