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Sandy forecasts were on target, but message was a bit garbled

Boats damaged during Hurricane Sandy are seen on an island off Sea Bright, New Jersey, November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Adam Hunger
Boats damaged during Hurricane Sandy are seen on an island off Sea Bright, New Jersey, November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Adam Hunger

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) - The first predictions of the monster storm that slammed into the East Coast of the United States came nearly a week before Sandy made landfall on Monday, giving state and local officials ample notice to issue warnings and make preparations for the threat.

But in the aftermath of the storm that left a swath of destruction across 15 states and cut power to more than 8 million people, some meteorologists question the federal government's decision not to issue hurricane or tropical storm warnings for Sandy north of the Carolinas.

"I think the meteorological community as a whole did a very strong job on this storm," said Marshall Moss, vice president for forecasting at AccuWeather, a private forecasting company based in Pennsylvania.

Preparations were made, evacuations were called for, and "many, many lives were saved," Moss said in an interview on Thursday.

But AccuWeather and others are criticizing the decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center (NHC) not to issue hurricane warnings for Sandy north of North Carolina.

To some, the rationale was semantic. Because Sandy was merging with a winter storm, when it reached land it would no longer be considered a tropical storm.

So, instead of issuing hurricane warnings, Sandy was handled with a series of high wind and flood warnings through local National Weather Servoce offices.

In an advisory issued on Saturday, the hurricane center said the decision to classify Sandy as a post-tropical storm was intended to "avoid or minimize the significant confusion that could occur" if the warnings changed from tropical to non-tropical in the middle of the storm.

But AccuWeather and others worried the decision might lead to more confusion, not less. Hours before landfall, AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers urged the hurricane center to reverse its decision to not issue hurricane or tropical storm warnings, the company said in a statement.

"What we have is a hurricane becoming embedded in a winter storm. It's clearly unprecedented," Myers said. "But to refuse to issue hurricane warnings clearly can cause confusion."

Moss said not calling the storm a hurricane could lead some to underestimate the power of Sandy, one of the most expensive storms in U.S. history, with up to $20 billion in insured losses and as much as $50 billion in damages.

And he feared the hurricane center was too focused on being technically accurate, and not focused enough on communicating the severity of the risk.

"It got a little too weather weenie," said Moss, noting that the term hurricane conjures up powerful images of destruction that might not be conveyed with flood and high wind warnings.

MANY WERE CONFUSED

Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the hurricane center, declined to comment on AccuWeather's criticisms, but in an interview on Tuesday, John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center said he doesn't "totally disagree" with AccuWeather's criticisms.

"We had a hurricane headed toward the coastline and no hurricane warnings. That confused a lot of people," he said.

Cangialosi said the hurricane center issues tropical storm watches and warnings and hurricane watches and warnings. But for other types of storms, the warnings are handled by local Weather Forecast Offices, which issue non-tropical storm warnings.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, said he still thought it was "overall the best course" to use local Weather Forecast Office watches and warnings to avoid a switch in warnings midstream.

Brian McNoldy, senior research associate at the University of Miami, said overall, the predictions on the storm were excellent, but he does question the decision not to issue hurricane warnings, especially since the storm was basically a category 2 hurricane just two hours before it made landfall.

"I think people generally tend to take a hurricane warning more seriously than a high wind warning," he said.

But given all the hype about the severity of the storm, McNoldy said word managed to get out anyway.

Moss said AccuWeather continued to warn its customers to be prepared for a hurricane, severe coastal flooding and strong winds over a wide area extending from Virginia up through New York and New England.

Few question the quality of the forecasting for Sandy.

"The computer models were predicting this storm would affect the East Coast of the United States as far out as a week in advance," said David Nolan, associate professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami.

"Compare that to events in previous times," he said, adding that the blizzard of 1978 "was a complete surprise to people in New England. If you go back further, there was no ability to predict such events at all."

Cangialosi agrees the hurricane center did a good job as meteorologists, but said the other component of the job is communicating the message, especially with emergency managers who are responsible for making decisions about how to keep people in a storm's path safe.

And in the end, the decision to classify Sandy as a post-tropical storm may save homeowners across New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Maryland money because insurers can't enforce costly hurricane deductibles on storm-related claims.

Cangialosi said the hurricane center plans to review its decision on the warnings and other aspects of the storm with emergency managers at the end of November, and again at a conference in the spring.

"We're going to have to address what went right and what went wrong," he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Todd Eastham)

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