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After the Storm - Reasons and Excuses

By: Bryan Norcross , 3:46 AM GMT on November 12, 2012

It's been two weeks since Sandy assaulted the northeast coast, and still over 190,000 customers are without power... although some of those happened during Winter Storm Athena. In any case, more than 60% of the outages are on Long Island.

When you look at the distribution of Sandy's winds, you can see at least part of the reason. A band of strong winds rotating around the nor'easter part of Sandy raked Long Island from end to end. That east-to-west band pushed record high water into Long Island Sound and ripped through southern New England as well. Islip recorded a gust of 90 mph, and there were a number of hurricane-force gusts recorded from southern New England to northern New Jersey.

But, these were gusts, not sustained winds, and the sustained-wind number is what counts when we talk about whether a storm is a tropical storm or a hurricane. In fact, most of this area was affected by tropical-storm-force sustained winds with occasional gusts to hurricane force.

When the NHC labels a system a 90-mph hurricane, they mean that somewhere - anywhere will do - in the circulation there are sustained, one-minute-averaged winds of 74 mph or higher. There might be a little patch of winds at that strength out over the ocean, or there could be a big swath or a donut of 90-mph wind rotating around the storm. All of those possibilities would still rate a 90-mph hurricane.

In the case of Sandy, there was a patch of winds up near 90 mph, but there was ALSO a big swath of winds sustained between about 65 and 75 mph which did the damage on Long Island.

The scary part of this is that the highest sustained winds over land were mostly likely ONLY about 65 to 75 mph. What would happen if a Category 3 hurricane came though there with sustained winds over 115 mph and gusts to 140? If Sandy taxed the power-recovery system, the fuel-delivery system, and every other system, a Category 3 would be nightmare that's hard to think about. But, hopefully some people are thinking about that, since it's clear that the pre-Sandy plan was not good enough.

None of this means that the Long Island Power Authority is blameless in the horrendous post-Sandy situation on the Island. Maybe they had an appropriate hurricane plan, maybe not. But, at least it's understandable why the wind-damage, a.k.a. the dark and freezing nightmare, was concentrated there.

Which brings us to the pre-Sandy Bloomdoggle on the Saturday before the storm. I'm hoping that the Mayor comes clean about what led him to conclude that Sandy's mega-push of water was "not expected to be a tropical-storm- or hurricane-type surge". There was also that business about the water rising slower than in hurricanes... blah blah blah. It sounded a lot like somebody was whispering bad meteorology in the Mayor's ear. Could he really have come up with all of that on his own? Hard to imagine.

In any case, there is a HUGE lesson here for politicians and emergency managers who need to accurately characterize the type and level of threat to the public. Get some qualified help to craft the message. Attribute the forecast and the predicted effects to the source of the information. Don't try to out-guess the experts. And for god's sake, don't try to be an amateur meteorologist.

Remember, if you sound like a dope giving the wrong forecast, it will taint the other good things you do, which are most likely in your wheelhouse.

I'm hoping that we find out how this went so wrong in a generally well run Bloomberg administration. It would be very instructive. Although it's not hard to imagine that the lawyers have imposed a cone of silence.

A piece of the puzzle might be the local New York-area forecast from the National Weather Service Saturday morning:


Holy crap! That was a TERRIBLE forecast. The water rose about 9 feet at the Battery Monday night, and higher in other places. By Saturday afternoon, 8 hours later, they made a slight adjustment:


How is that kind of radical change possible when the forecast for the storm didn't change at all? It's possible because the people that know the most about storm surge are at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and the local National Weather Service offices sometimes go rogue before coordinating their message with the NHC.

My experience with the people at the National Hurricane Center AND the local NWS offices is beyond good. They are true professionals working, in the case of the local offices, in an under-funded environment. But sometimes that whole NOAA/NWS/NHC train jumps the track because they don't know when to throw the switch and head for Plan B - the big-emergency, gotta-get-it-right, smack-the-public-in-the-head plan.

This dysfunctional storm-surge messaging was brought to you by the same arcane and inflexible rules and structure that prevented a Hurricane Watch and Warning from being issued for an extremely dangerous hurricane that was forecast to slam the coast. The technicalities of the meteorology at landfall were invoked for that one. I'm betting that something about the time window for coordination not being open or some other blah-blah-blah will be rolled out as an excuse for the drastically bad early-morning storm surge forecast.

The pros at the National Weather Service can do better. I'm hoping that this is the last time the rules, procedures, and administrative nonsense get in the way of dealing with reality. When reality says the rules don't apply because something REALLY bad is coming, break the freakin' rules.

I might have just crafted Plan B. 1) Ignore the stupid rules. 2) Ask the pros what to do.

My post on hurricane insurance (sic) got some nice comments. Lots more on that to come.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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7. stanchaz
12:15 PM GMT on December 02, 2012
potential effect on NYC ..of course
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
6. stanchaz
12:04 PM GMT on December 02, 2012
For what it's worth...or not worth....
the following is what I wrote in ANGER two days before Sandy hit NYC, when I heard Mayor Bloomberg downplaying the storms potential affect on NYC, his refusal to shut the schools and the subways, and his refusal to order evacuations. He changed his mind the next day, but lost precious time, and momentum....and credibility. Following that, is what I wrote after the storm had passed.
Two days BEFORE the storm:
What-Me-Worry-NYC-Mayor-Bloomberg --by NOT ordering coastal evacuations and the shutdown of schools and subways for the coming monster storm- is GAMBLING with the lives of New Yorkers. But what did you expect? Like Romney and his crew, Bloomie’s real god is money: making it, keeping it, and worrying about it - instead of valuing people. For if this hybrid perfect storm called Sandy- with a huge wind-field and sea water surge (which is different, much larger, and even more dangerous than a pure hurricane)....if it comes inland to the south of NYC, ( on a track heading to the northwest , into Jersey, from the sea , as is now expected )...THEN... that can cause an unprecedented, serious, and prolonged threat of major flooding along the NY coastline-- with enormous amounts of water being pushed straight up into New York Harbor and Long Island Sound from the southeast-- with no where to go, except the streets and subways. How long does it take to replace subway tracks corroded by seawater? You tell me. Just look at a map of the coastline. It's L shaped. And the corner is ...New York harbor. So when we push the water in there.. by means of a huge hybrid storm like this... coming inland from the sea to our south (which has never happened before with a tropical system!)... then WATCH OUT! This “left-hook” storm, coming in off the sea, can knock out New York City like never before. In addition-- we have higher tides from the full moon, and twenty foot waves on top of that and the storm surge! This is WORSE than Irene's potential flooding (which fizzled out). And this is without even considering the power outages and damage that can be caused by sustained high winds hitting our glass high rise buildings, and with many trees in the city still foliated. Wake up Bloomie, and PLEASE stop counting your cash. People’s LIVES are much more important than business being shut down in NYC for a day or two. We’re sorry to spoil your usual weekend vacations Mayor --but you can't stop and frisk THIS one, baby. If nursing home residents in the Rockaways are caught by rising waters, or if schoolkids are injured on the subway on Monday -as a result of your inaction- will you simply say that you are sorry Mr. Mayor? This is no time for “busines as usual”!
------------------------------------------------- ---------------
AFTER the storm (when some people were saying "no one predicted this)":
When you say the “nobody predicted” this historic tidal water rise,
perhaps you should check into the episode of the Weather Channel’s TV program “It Can Happen Here”, entitled “What if a hurricane struck NYC?”.
In that program, produced several years ago (which admittedly describes the effects of a much stronger hurricane in a somewhat sensationalistic fashion), geology Professor Nicholas Koch (of New York City’s Queens College) very accurately and precisely predicted the devastating consequences to NYC that would be produced by a hurricane taking the track that Sandy took, especially with regard to potential tidal flooding.
In that program, Professor Koch outlines the fact that we have an “L” shaped coastline, with the corner of the “L” being NY Harbor. Therefore, any hurricane coming inland into the New Jersey coast to our south, as Sandy did, would cause strong winds and waves to come in from the southeast off the ocean. This would push enormous amounts of water into the corner into the corner of the “L” ( that is, into New York harbor), as well as -at the same time- pushing sea water surges down Long Island Sound into the East River. All of which would mean that the sea water would have no place to go except the streets, the subways, and the tunnels of low lying areas of NYC, causing devastating tidal flooding.
Which is exactly what happened.
IF Mayor Bloomberg had understood and heeded the realities of this kind of storm track and scenario (which was very accurately predicted by many forecasters days in advance) ---instead of relying on the erroneous and reckless decision of the Weather Bureau NOT to issue any hurricane warnings for this so-called “hybrid: storm (with 94 mile winds on the Island!)
we would have had a much earlier and a much more orderly evacuation - instead of a last minute rush to action by the Mayor and the City on Sunday (the day before the storm).
We of course need to harden our infrastructure. But ...both the Weather Bureau and the Mayor’s advisors absolutely need to get their act together for future situations like this, as they begin to occur more and more frequently....

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
5. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
5:22 AM GMT on November 19, 2012
bnorcross has created a new entry.
4. RetiredChiefP
9:59 PM GMT on November 16, 2012
Thanks for the great blog Mr. Norcross! I hope that NYC, even in the inevitable "lawyer cone of silence", can quietly learn lessons from this experience and improve their disaster preparedness plan. I know that those affected by Sandy may feel that this is too late for their struggles...and it is...but it is never too late to improve for the future.

My department, on our little scale (25 square miles and 60k residents), learned HUGE lessons from Katrina, which made us prepare prior to Rita and Ike. We are now, as an unincorporated portion of Harris County, Texas, fully integrated into the Southeast Texas community. Before I retired earlier this year, I understood that we were the only unincorporated entity that has integrated with municipalities in joint efforts for hurricane preparedness...I hope that we are not the only ones now.

Even after the storm, and during the continued struggles in recovery, we all...as emergency managers...need to continue to improve for "the next one".

As evidenced by recent events, it is (now) not only the Gulf Coast, the Southern Atlantic Coast, nor the Islands of the Carribbean that need to develop comprehensive hurricane preparedness/disaster relief plans.

Chief P (retired)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
3. terstorm
2:36 PM GMT on November 15, 2012
oh, and it appears the NHC did want to put up tropical warnings, but the forecast offices did not.

In this case, this was *not* NHC's call. They simply acquiesced to what the coastal NWS offices north of NC wanted. NHC did in fact propose TC watches during a couple of conference calls, however the coastal FO's - Wakefield VA, Mount Holly NJ (PHL), and Upton (NYC) - stated that they wanted to handle the storm with the non-tropical suite of products since they felt the cyclone was either going to already be post-tropical, or almost there.

I'm not saying one way or the other is better in this case, but a case such as this highlights the misperception that NHC does things unilaterally.

If anyone wants to cast alleged blame in this instance, then direct it at those NWS offices, not NHC.

 spotted this over at storm2k.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
2. terstorm
2:31 PM GMT on November 15, 2012
Contrast with NWS New York's sister office that services most of south and Central New Jersey, southeast Pennsylvania including Philadelphia, and Delaware which had dire forecasts from basically the 25th of October on.

On the 27th they were begging people to leave the coast, telling them "if we're wrong, call us and tell us so, but we'll be glad you did, because we want you to be alive." I haven't seen a forecast office or forecaster make a plea like that since Katrina.

Many of my weather-weenie friends had a LOT of trouble believing what they were seeing the week before Sandy.

On top of that, while the NHC has decoupled storm surge from the saffir-simpson scale, emergency management has most clearly has NOT. Look at all the maps for Long Island and New York City and the Jersey Shore. That is something that needs to change, and perhaps the NHC should lead the effort.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
1. whitewabit
5:12 AM GMT on November 12, 2012
good Blog Bryon, I hope that all emergency managers along the eastern seaboard review there hurricane plans and update them ..

Wonder what the power outages would have been if it would have made landfall near DC ..
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:

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