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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sandy Final Analysis: Not A Hurricane At Landfall, But...

Did Sandy strike the mid-Atlantic as a hurricane, or a post-tropical cyclone?  The answer -- and apologies for a Clintonesque parsing of words -- depends on what you mean by "strike."

The evidence comes from the National Hurricane Center's thorough post-mortem report on Hurricane Sandy which was released yesterday.  NHC now states that Sandy made "landfall" as a post-tropical cyclone.  This means that when its center reached the coast, it was post-tropical.  The problem --- and the issue -- is that the storm was so large that hurricane-force winds were felt on the coast while the storm was still tropical in nature.  NHC concedes this very point.

Go to footnote 6 (see page 4) which points out that the effects of Sandy had been felt onshore (that is, on the New Jersey shore) for several hours while Sandy was still classified as a hurricane (perhaps by default, as the classification change always follows or lags the actual change on the ground).  Page 5 of the report notes one reading out of Great Gull Island, New York which supports the NHC finding that "Sustained hurricane-force winds likely occurred onshore over a limited area while Sandy was still a hurricane."  The report adds that "Sustained hurricane-force winds therefore almost certainly occurred in New Jersey, although these are believed to have occurred after Sandy's extratropical transition."  

This is not news to anyone in the mid-Atlantic.  Needless to say, the wind and surge impacts of Sandy (two factors which when felt are indistinguishable from nor'easters) were already felt on the New York and New Jersey coasts while it was still a hurricane (tropical cyclone), and certainly the storm surge was produced over the course of several days as Sandy moved parallel to the Atlantic Coast before making its "Sandy Hook" to the northwest.  As for the surge, the report states that the inundation from Sandy was between four and nine feet in Manhattan and Staten Island, two areas with the most severe flooding damage.  

(An interesting note: The report mentions that Sandy caused blizzard conditions in West Virginia and points out that such "widespread heavy snow" is "exceptionally rare" in a storm having just lost tropical characteristics.)  

This report is interesting because NHC notably held off on expanding the "hurricane warning" area northward from the Carolinas, even as the forecast models increasingly expected Sandy to strike the mid-Atlantic coast.  As early as 96 hours before landfall, NHC advisories mentioned the possibility -- and later, the probability -- of a mid-Atlantic strike.  The report at page 21 discusses the NHC and National Weather Service concerns that the type of warning (i.e., from hurricane warning to gale warning) not change in mid-storm, so to speak.  Whether this is sound policy as opposed to sound scientific protocol is bound to be a topic for much discussion for years.  Certainly, the report discusses the merits and drawbacks of three options, including the option of "intentionally misrepresenting" Sandy as a hurricane when it was not one.  However, this seems to be an overblown concern, certainly as this concern had to have been premised on an as-yet-to-occur extratropical transition from hurricane to post-tropical cyclone status.  If anything, the report may provide a fortuitous rationale (or legal defense, should anyone bring wrongful death actions for the failure to issue hurricane warnings) for the NHC and National Weather Service to have held off on the use of hurricane warnings.  Establishing that Sandy was not a hurricane at landfall helps their position and helps them validate their actions.  

However, in my final analysis, it seems awfully risky, whether with the benefit of hindsight or not, to have withheld a hurricane warning issuance on the prediction that an extratropical transition would occur and complete prior to landfall.  


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