Hurricane Sandy: Lessons Learned One Year Later

October 28th, 2013

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It was one year ago this week that Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the eastern seaboard of United States, threatening millions of lives and the economic centerpiece of the nation.  This unique, catastrophic event tested the public safety community from Virginia to Massachusetts with a potpourri of storm surge, inland flooding, wind, and heavy wet snow in the mountains.  Such a combination resulted in widespread damage ranging from power outages to damaged sky scrapers to urban conflagrations.  Despite even the most comprehensive pre-storm preparations, the cleanup continues to this day, especially along the New Jersey and New York coastline.  Here in Maryland, local, state and federal agencies work to repair Sandy’s damage even through the brief government shutdown.   On this one year anniversary, we take a look back to understand why Hurricane Sandy was so great in scope and what steps can be taken to assuage the impact from future emergencies of this magnitude.

The Meteorology

Sandy formed on October 22, 2012 deep in the Caribbean Sea, a region favored for spawning late-season tropical cyclones, due to ability to retain warm ocean waters well into early November.  The storm quickly intensified into a hurricane and briefly peaked as a Category 3 major hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale (Blake et al, 2013).  As she moved north, Sandy progressively weakened while moving over colder waters and stronger winds aloft which disrupted thunderstorm development. Such a process is routine for tropical systems, especially later in the year as cold fronts move off North America and sweep storms east out into the open Atlantic Ocean (Landsea, 1993).  But this time would be different, as computer model guidance from the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) quickly modeled the storm to abruptly curve westward, slam into a potent cold front racing southeast from Canada and erupt into a historic storm for the eastern United States.

When the European computer model first highlighted such an event, it was received  with some skepticism.  Even so, the ECMWF has developed one of the best weather forecast models in the world.  With each run, the message remained the same even though the American computer models, like the Global Forecast System (GFS), were not in agreement.  It was not until 60 hours later that American computer models concurred with the ECMWF and by then emergency preparations were well underway from North Carolina to Maine.  With such potential for destruction and loss of life, the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service went into over drive.  Extra weather balloons were launched across the country and Hurricane Hunters from the Air Force flew continuous missions.  All of this to gather extra data for forecasters and their computer models to make the most informed decisions possible.  Without a doubt, these actions ultimately improved the forecast and saved lives.

Then, as if on cue, Sandy was drawn into the cold front and exploded into one of the largest storms in recorded history.  At its peak, storm clouds stretched from the Caribbean Sea to Canada.  Sandy intensified rapidly and made landfall late on October 29th just north of Atlantic City, NJ.  All the while, the storm’s surge inundated coastal New York and New Jersey.  Sandy then tapped sub-freezing air from the cold front and produced record snowfall of nearly three feet along the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains (Blake et al, 2013). Finally, on Halloween the storm dissipated in Western Pennsylvania near Lake Erie, but the damage was done.

The Impacts

Despite the best efforts of public safety officials, Hurricane Sandy unfortunately claimed 286 lives.  A total of twenty four states were impacted from inland flooding, high winds, snow or storm surge.  The large scale impacts resulted in over six million people without power and nearly six billion dollars in damages. The U.S. Stock Exchange in New York City was also forced to shut down for two days.  Such an economic loss ranks Hurricane Sandy as the sixth costliest U.S. Hurricane since 1900, after adjusting for inflation (Plumer, 2012).  Managing the amount of flooding, debris, emergency calls, and calculating cost proved to be a daunting task that pushed even the most resilient responder to the limit.

Iconic images of roller coasters partially buried along the New Jersey shoreline, a Long Island community destroyed by fire, and  feet of snow isolating residents in western Maryland will be remember long into the future as hallmarks of the storm.  Scenes from New York hospitals being evacuated and twisted skyscrapers will also be forever remembered.  But perhaps one of the most striking impacts from Hurricane Sandy, at least in the United States, is the hit to the medium and small business community.  In New York City alone 23,000 businesses and non-profits employing over 200,000 people were flooded.  Of these 23,000 enterprises, 70% were waterfront enterprises (New York City Resiliency Report, 2013).  This striking number reinforces the notion that even small business owners must educate themselves on local hazards and make every reasonable effort to protect their employees and assets.  To that effect, local government needs to afford easy access to business continuity practices and work with smaller vendors. New York City has recognized this importance and incorporated this costly education into a robust, wide reaching recovery plan.

It should also be noted that Hurricane Sandy delayed early voting in several states, such as Maryland, and resulted in some delay on election returns in the State of New Jersey.  These states were already favored to pull for President Barack Obama, but Sandy still had her say in the 2008 Presidential Elections.

Lessons Learned & Moving Forward

Hurricane Sandy was a major teaching moment for the public safety community. The storm proved that when dealing with a natural hazard we should expect the unexpected.  Many challenges were well documented in After Action Reports and three similarities emerged from these reports.  First, the electrical grid as a whole in the northeast United States is incredibly vulnerable to large scale weather events.  Second, improved accessibility of coastal-storm information must be made available to residents and business owners.  Third, local government must communicate more effectively with non-English speakers. Recommendations based on these shortcomings will strengthen overall preparedness and install building blocks for a more comprehensive emergency response in the future.  For example, many utility companies are stepping up their efforts to trim trees, repair existing infrastructure and progressively move electrical lines underground in highly vegetated areas. Analyzing new geographic data through Geographic Information System (GIS) software helps emergency planners visualize changes in demographics and non-English speaking populations.  GIS technology also quickly visualizes changes in coastal communities and what new challenges can be expected as we grapple with climate change and map damage in real-time (Block et al, 2013).  Finally, emergency managers are working closer with business owners to communicate risk and create a more informed business community.

Sources
Blake, Eric S; Kimberlain, Todd B; Berg, Robert J; Cangialosi, John P; Beven II, John L; National Hurricane Center (February 12, 2013) (PDF).Hurricane Sandy: October 22 – 29, 2012 (Tropical Cyclone Report). United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service.  Archived from the original on February 17, 2013. 

Bloch, M., Fessenden, F., McLean, A., Tse, A., & Watkins, D. (n.d.). Surveying the Destruction Caused by Hurricane Sandy. The New York Times. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2012/1120-sandy/survey-of-the-flooding-in-new-york-after-the-hurricane.html

New York City Resiliency Report. “NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency.” NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. http://www.nyc.gov/html/sirr/html/report/report.shtml.

Landsea, C. W. (1993). Monthly Weather Review. American Meteorological Society, 121. Retrieved October 24, 2013, from http://192.111.123.246/hrd/Landsea/Landsea_MWRJune1993.pdf 

Plumer, B. (2013, November 5). Is Sandy the second-most destructive U.S. hurricane ever? Or not even top 10?. Washington Post. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from http://tinyurl.com/mv66ctq 

Uken, Marlies (2012-10-30). “Sandy zeigt, wie marode Amerikas Infrastruktur ist” [Sandy shows how ailing America’s infrastructure is]. Zeit Online (in German) (Hamburg, Germany).

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