This is the official blog for Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist at The Weather Channel.
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:
2 TO 3 FT ABOVE ASTRONOMICAL TIDES MONDAY MORNING INTO TUESDAY MORNING...WITH POSSIBLE HIGHER DEPARTURES DEPENDENT UPON THE TRACK OF SANDY.
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:
POTENTIAL FOR 4 TO 8 FT DEPARTURES MONDAY NIGHT INTO TUESDAY MORNING.
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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