Revisiting Superstorm Sandy Part 2: Warnings Given, and Ignored
[Patrick Moffitt is the co-author of this four-part series. Read Part 1 here.]
Mayors and governors cannot say they weren’t adequately warned, not just once, but time and time again – in news stories, reports, photographs and graphic personal recollections. New York City was told in 1968 that it needed to protect its infrastructure from a potential 20-foot rise in water above sea level. Sandy was 14 feet.
Still more official reports by various agencies repeated these warnings over the next four decades – but with little or no action being taken by the city, even though the latest projection warned of water levels rising nearly 30 feet in the vicinity of John F. Kennedy Airport. The December 1992 nor’easter also foreshadowed Sandy flooding major sections of the PATH and subway systems.
Those reports and the accompanying photos provide merely the tips of the proverbial icebergs that these captains of titanic states and urban areas ignore at their citizens’ peril.
Sandy was a very large, destructive, deadly storm. Its gale force winds exceeded in diameter any NY/NJ storm since the satellite era began in 1978, with low pressure readings equal to the 1938 storm and the reconstructed 1635 hurricane. Fortunately, its winds were not of hurricane strength in the city. Unfortunately, Sandy’s Atlantic City, NJ landfall was a worst-case scenario, as it aligned New York Harbor with the more intense “right wall” winds that saw the maximum push of water hit simultaneously with a spring (full-moon) high tide – adding another 5.5 of water, plus waves on top of the surge.
The fact that New York Harbor is tucked into the mid-Atlantic coast has protected it during most of its history. However when a powerful enough storm roars in and lines up with the harbor entrance, the surge is funneled to even higher levels by the natural geography and by the land use changes and dredging that have occurred over the last century. Indeed, NYC saw the highest water level over the past hundred years because it hit at high tide.
However, other areas like Kings Point, NY, were spared devastating floods because the surge came ashore at low tide, reducing the potential peak water elevation by 7 or 8 feet. Sandy was just one more big storm to hit the NJ barrier islands – with the 1938 and 1944 hurricanes and the 1962 nor’easter appearing to have punished these low-lying areas equally hard, but when far fewer people and a lot less valuable real estate were at risk.
The “superstorm” killed more than 100 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and left millions without food, water, electricity, sanitation, or shelter for days or even weeks. Our thoughts and prayers remain focused on its victims, many of whom are still grieving as they struggle with the storm’s wintry aftermath and try to rebuild their lives. But now we must learn from it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claimed “The people of New Orleans and that area, they were hurt, but nothing in comparison to what happened to the people in New York and New Jersey.” That too is nonsense. However, Sandy was without doubt a killer storm, whose toll on humans and property was made much worse by land use and geographic realities – and by confused, confusing, and misleading statements by weather services and public officials on whom people depended for timely and adequate warnings about what to expect and what to do.
Could Have Been Worse …
Sandy might have been far worse, had it repeated the 1938 “Express.” But there might have been fewer deaths, had proper warnings been issued by state and city government officials – and heeded by residents.
However, the system is fundamentally, if not fatally, flawed and broken at every level. Forecasters, media, emergency workers, and government leaders confused storm tide with storm surge, presented elevations using different data, used evacuation maps that are tied to hurricane category when Sandy was officially not called a hurricane. People were warned about the surge and waves, but the maps don’t allow them to understand how to translate this into risk. We need to fix this communications disaster.
Much of the public’s confusion could be resolved by placing markers on telephone poles, showing high water levels as a usable point of reference. But this has been resisted in the past because officials feared that people looking out of their second story windows would see Category 3 storm surge levels right at eye level – and this could raise public objections to future development.
New York’s leaders have been repeatedly distracted by soft drink bans, renewable energy initiatives, slowly rising sea levels, and other matters that are inconsequential compared to preparing for potentially catastrophic events like recurring hurricanes and “super storms.” Such dereliction of duty and absence of focus on potential life-and-death events is why politicians should be focused on the most fundamental duties of government, not mission creep. As it is, we have poor preparation followed by poor response followed by … poor understanding for New York/New Jersey to best prepare for next time.
But even as Sandy bore down on the metropolitan area, presenting the region with its biggest natural threat in decades, they bungled their responsibilities. Displaying confusion and incompetence, and issuing storm warnings that further confused matters and downplayed the storm’s dangers, NYC leaders, NOAA, and the National Hurricane Center put people at grave risk, all but ensuring that people would die needlessly when the Sandy made landfall at 8:02 pm on Monday, October 29, 2012.
Sandy was not “unprecedented,” nor was it “the big one.” We need to learn from our failure to confront a 9-foot surge, so that we can be better prepared to deal with the consequences of a 20-30 foot surge. Covering up the failures uncovered by Sandy, by calling the storm “unprecedented,” is not a good start.
Saturday, October 27th
On this day, the NHC said “Sometime prior to making landfall, Hurricane Sandy is expected to lose its characteristics as a tropical cyclone and take on the structure of a wintertime low-pressure area.” Contradicting the NHC, AccuWeather, and other private meteorologists urged the NHC that failing to issue a hurricane warning that the public understood would have grave consequences.
The public perceived the “downgrade” from hurricane status as a lessening of the storm’s intensity, when in fact the storm was intensifying.
The NHC further advised that “tidal departures [are expected to be] 1 to 1-1/2 feet above astronomical tides Sunday night … 2 to 4 ft above astronomical tides Monday morning … and potential for 5 to 10 ft [of surge] Monday night into Tuesday morning.” That would mean storm surges plus a potential high tide at landfall, pushing water up to 14 feet in height, and capped by waves 10-15 feet high. However, this was not accurately or succinctly explained.
Moreover, Mayor Bloomberg soft-peddled even this advisory, telling New Yorkers: “Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge. With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water, rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect with a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago. So it will be less dangerous.”
In reality, it was not less dangerous; nor was the NHC saying the storm surge would be any less dangerous. Sandy actually had more forward speed than Irene when it made landfall. Mr. Bloomberg needs to explain why he made such a misleading statement.
In contrast to Mayor Bloomberg’s downplaying the situation, Governor Christie called a state of emergency on Saturday – stressing that the storm could be “severe and devastating,” potentially worse than Hurricane Irene, and could cause seven to ten-day day power outages. Christie’s warnings were explicit and typically blunt: “Don’t’ be stupid. Get out.” The evacuation of the Jersey shore with its largely seasonal and less dense population is generally less problematic than for the New York Metro area, but Christie effectively used State Police to reassure the public that looting would be controlled.
Saturday Night Live later mocked the governor in its opening sketch, for employing such blunt language when ordering the evacuations. But SNLmocked the wrong politician. Gov. Christy’s advisories probably saved lives. That said, New Jersey’s response was not unblemished, as the NJ Transit Authority stored its trains in a known flood zone – and like New York, New Jersey historically has done little to mitigate storm effects, while also adopting planning policies that push more people and more expensive development into storm and flooding hazard areas.
Sunday, October 28th
On this day, the National Weather Service increased its prediction to 6 to 11 feet of surge, plus up to 5.5 feet of tide – meaning a potential storm tide 11.5 to 16.5 feet high, plus waves. The NHC said the hurricane would “transition” before landfall, but with sustained winds of 70-80 mph (a hurricane is 74 mph) and storm surges unlike anything New York City had seen in 50-100 years. Mayor Bloomberg related the storm and tide surge correctly, but ordered evacuation only for low-lying areas (and not even for nursing homes).
People were understandably confused. Not a hurricane; wintertime low pressure area; less dangerous than Irene; potential storm surges and high tides, but nothing combining the two high water marks, plus waves; minimal evacuation. Accurately interpreting these contradictory messages was impossible.
New York City hurricane evacuation zones are not linked on city maps to surge levels, but only to hurricane category. Communicating surge levels to the public is meaningless in the absence of reference points. Past or potential storm (plus tide) surge levels along various city streets should be, but are not, marked on buildings or street signs. Increasing the danger, not a word was said during Sandy about tunnels, power plants, and generators potentially flooding and knocking out electricity and backup power.
Compounding these problems, the mayor turned away the National Guard, saying “the NYPD is the only people we want on the street with guns.” People had evacuated with Irene and come home to find not just no flood damage but their homes looted. At least one unfortunate family that had evacuated with Irene decided looting was the risk and died in Sandy’s flood. NYC should have recognized, but failed to recognize, the complex risk decisions people must make – including greater concern with looting than flooding, in the wake of Irene and in the face of confusion over Sandy.
Evacuation emergency planning must account for how people behave and make risk decisions. If the City expects its people to heed evacuation orders, as a first step it must demonstrate that the City will prevent looting.
Monday, October 29th
On this day, the NHC 8:00 am update for the first time said the storm was expected to bring “hurricane force” winds and “life-threatening storm surge to the Mid-Atlantic coast, including Long Island Sound and New York.” While the Center still would not call Sandy a hurricane, it did stress that “winds affecting the upper floors of high-rise buildings will be significantly stronger than those near ground level.” What this might portend in terms of flying glass and furniture the NHC did not say.
At 5:00 pm, Sandy was 30 miles from land, with 90 mph winds. At 7:00 pm, the Center referred to Sandy as a “post tropical storm” for the first time, even though its winds were still 85 mph and the storm tide at Battery Park was already 11 feet, with an hour to go before high tide.
Mayor Bloomberg issued another press release at 11:30 am, advising: “This is a massive storm. Hurricane-force winds extend some 175 miles in every direction of the center. The storm may strengthen as it meets the cold front approaching from the northwest, and that’s when it changes from a tropical storm to a nor’easter, which has very big implications for those areas to the west of us and to the north of us…. A surge of 9-10 is possible along Coney Island and the Rockaways. And a surge of 11-12 feet may occur at the Battery Monday evening…. Now if you live on a coastline, you have to add to that the breaking waves. Waves of 15 to 20 feet along the ocean will result in severe beach erosion, but also drive some water over the roads and more inland.”
Bloomberg’s update was fatal for many. With every model now saying the worst case scenario of surge and high tide hitting together – and NYC would see more flooding than at any time in modern history – he said the storm would primarily impact areas west and north of NYC. His comment that 20-foot waves will drive “some water over roads” should have been rephrased to say such waves would smash homes into piles of scrap and likely kill anyone who remained in its path.
Sandy made landfall at 8:02 pm Monday near Atlantic City, NJ, with sustained winds of 90 mph – and a storm tide – about equal to the 1944 hurricane and the 1992 nor’easter. (The 1938 hurricane destroyed the tide gauge a common problem during intense storms and one reason why we have so little empirical storm evidence. Intense storms destroy our instruments just when we need them most.)
However, no one in authority wanted to call Sandy a hurricane, even though it was packing hurricane-force winds – and people needed the full, accurate context in order to understand the risks they faced. No one explained that these 90+ mph winds at a full-moon high tide were driving storm surges and waves that together could total a wall of water up to 30 feet high! Or that they would do a lot worse damage to shoreline communities and barrier island residents than merely “severe beach erosion.”
Government officials decided two days before landfall that no hurricane warning would be issued north of Hatteras, even though Sandy remained a hurricane till just before landfall. They need to explain this.
And now Bloomberg, Cuomo, Schumer ,and other politicians want to blame the catastrophe on climate change. It won’t wash. 
 In fact, Mr. Bloomberg wants to have it both ways: climate change when it advances his agenda; not climate change when it doesn’t. When the 2010 NY State Sea Level Rise task Force warned that rising seas would put the mayor’s grand waterfront plans at risk, Bloomberg became a climate skeptic.
His office wrote to the task force, warning that their sea level warnings could cause disinvestment and relocation from NYC’s urban areas. “Climate change poses real and significant risks to New Yorkers,” the letter stated,
but our response must be based on science and rational, risk-based planning that allows us to make more informed decisions about how to build resilience to sea level rise. In particular, we must better understand the impacts associated with the sea level rise levels projected for the 2050s and beyond, since these are the most severe, yet also the most uncertain….
The City supports the use of climate change projections to create maps depicting sea level rise for planning purposes, but is concerned that basing regulatory policy and additional permitting requirements on these maps is problematic, given the uncertainty and imprecision associated with current mapping and modeling technology.”
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black Death. Patrick Moffitt is president of Moffitt Consulting LLC, an environmental services company.
[First published at Master Resource.]