A Storm Chaser Offers Tips On Dealing With Sandy

October 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

Waves wash over the sea wall near high tide at Battery Park in New York, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast.

Editor’s Note: The author is a scientist who “chases” hurricanes. Most recently the author deployed his radar truck on a levee in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, cut off in all directions by flooding, sharing the levee with vicious giant rat-like nutria, and cows, horses, and alligators trying to escape the flooding, in order to collect valuable data available only inside Hurricane Isaac.

“Snowmaggedon” (2010), “The Storm of the Century” (1993), “The Perfect Storm” (1991), and now “Frankenstorm.” A recent weather site headline read “Flying debris is expected to attack areas from Boston to Buffalo.” The media love creative, eye catching, and sometimes hyperbolic, headlines. People, including me, love to read them. Halloween reminds us that some part of our psyche actually likes to be scared. Government officials are fearful of not “doing everything” to make us safe.  The National Weather Service has issued a warning ominously discussing “recovering your remains.”

Certainly Hurricane Sandy is a powerful and dangerous storm. But how bad will it really be? How much of what you hear is hype, how much prudent warning? What should you expect? How should you prepare?

The center of Sandy is forecast to make landfall in New Jersey very soon. Sandy’s peak winds will not be particularly strong, compared to many hurricanes. I’d be surprised if any on-shore official weather station measures sustained winds of hurricane force (75 mph). But Sandy is transitioning from being a storm that derives its energy from the heat in the ocean to a storm that derives its energy from winds and temperature differences in the middle atmosphere. This means that strong tropical storm force winds sustained over 50 mph, with gusts near hurricane strength, will extend far from New Jersey, possibly across coastal Southern New England. What will this do? It will not blow down houses. It shouldn’t remove your roof (if it does, call your roofer’s lawyer). What it will do is knock down and uproot weaker trees. 99% of trees will do just fine (unless winds gusts exceed 100 mph), but there are millions of trees, and some of the “1%” will hit power lines. So, of the tens of millions of people who live in the region, a small percentage, which still means a lot of people, will lose power. A small fraction of these people, those in the most remote areas, may lose power for a long time. Some trees will hit roofs and cars. So, what should you do to protect yourself and your property from the effects of these winds?

1. Don’t park your car under a tree. Fill it with gas so you can use it to charge your phone.

2. Stock up on what you might need, including non-refrigerated food, to live semi-comfortably through a blackout.

3. If you can afford it, purchase an inverter or car charger for your phone.

4. Have some duct tape and plastic to cover any windows which are broken by branches or other blown objects.

5. Don’t panic. This is not Armageddon, just a bad nor’easter. We’ve seen these before.

Another concern is coastal and stream flooding. The mayor of New York and officials in New Jersey have issued evacuation orders and I’m not saying to disregard these. As a meteorologist who has been inside many hurricanes, most stronger than Sandy, I’ll just describe what is likely, and what is not. Bear with me; to discuss what is “likely” I have to get into some light statistics. The official forecast (as of 5 a..m Monday as I’m writing this) is for 6-11 feet of surge in the most susceptible areas only. Most areas will see much less. Computer models are forecasting that some areas of Long Island Sound, south of Staten Island, and New Jersey are likely to experience surge near and above 6 feet with a 10% chance of over 11 feet. So, it is not likely that 11 feet will occur, but there is a 10% chance. The threat of stream flooding appears to be worst in in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, where 3-9 inches of rain are forecast. If you remember Hurricane Irene, the worst effects were well inland, due to stream/river flooding. So, what should you do?

1. Did your house flood in Irene? If I lived right on the ocean, particularly if I were in an area which has flooded before, consider leaving. You know if you are in an area vulnerable to ocean flooding, say a barrier island. Take appropriate precautions. This might mean leaving.

2. Did a nearby stream flood your house the last time there were several inches of rain? If so, it may flood again. You know if you are in a house that is vulnerable.

3. Never drive into water unless you know, really know, that it is shallow and still.

Most residents of this area experienced intense cyclones in 2011 (Hurricane Irene), 2010 (Snowmageddon), and 1993 (Storm of the Century). Hurricanes Bob and Gloria impacted southern New England, causing flooding, wind damage, and power outages. Sandy is a very intense storm. It is among the worst we’ve experienced in the past century. It has an impressively low central pressure. Some areas will certainly experience “historic” flooding, winds, or pressures, but most will not.

When considering how to mitigate the effects of any hazard, be it car accidents, child kidnappings, aircraft hijackings, bathtub drownings, or any of thousands of other risks, we should be both prudent and reasonable. “Better safe than sorry” is a particularly naïve platitude which would have us wear helmets to protect ourselves from possible meteorites. One chooses reasonable speed limits, reasonable supervision of our children, and reasonable airport security, and we don’t wear anti-meteorite helmets. Similarly, we can’t take every precaution against the danger posed by Sandy. Evacuations and business shutdowns may be warranted, particularly for those on barrier islands like Long Beach Island which was breached in a 1962 nor’easter.  But evacuations and shutdowns come at a high personal and economic cost that I hope politicians are considering thoroughly. The bulk of the economic and human impact from Sandy might result from evacuations and shutdowns, not direct damage.  Is the “cure” worse than the “disease”?   Are government warnings about “recover your remains” hyperbolic, possibly counterproductive?  There is no doubt that Sandy is a dangerous storm.  But, your personal decisions should be based on balancing the risks and costs in a fashion which is reasonable to you.

Atmospheric scientist Joshua Wurman is president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., and has appeared on Discovery Channel’s reality series “Storm Chasers.”

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