Hurricane Sandy Storm Surge Forecast and Warning Information

Tropical Storm/Hurricane Sandy sparked discussion on the possible need for changes in storm forecast and warning communication. This storm moved from a tropical storm to a hurricane to an extratropical (ET) storm (like a Nor’easter) as it approached landfall in the New York City area. Sandy triggered operational changes in responsibilities within the National Weather Service (NWS). People in hurricane-prone areas respond to hurricane forecasts based in large part on storm category (based on wind speed) and hurricane watches and warnings. Since Sandy was predicted to become an ET before landfall, the forecast included neither category or hurricane warning. Sandy remained a very dangerous storm given its storm surge. Whether its lack of official hurricane status delayed or hindered protective and evacuation decisions is subject for study. This project puts a team of experienced researchers in the field to collect important time-sensitive data related to this issue. The project has three parts. The first seeks to answer: Did the fact that multiple agencies and entities within agencies were responsible for different aspects of forecast and risk communication potentially contribute to insufficient or untimely protective responses by those in harm’s way? To answer this, researchers will study the government forecast communication processes through interviews with key persons involved in decisions related to the Sandy response (including those responsible for evacuation orders). The second research question relates to public response: What information did people see and hear and how did this information subsequently affect their evacuation decision-making? Researchers will conduct telephone interviews of coastal residents threatened or impacted by this storm. The team will also re-interview some people previously interviewed after Hurricane Irene. This will allow for comparisons between the two storms and their impacts on respondents. The third question addresses storm surge risk communication: How can the storm forecast communication and response process be improved to enhance understanding of flood risk (particularly from storm surge) and evoke appropriate protective action? Results gathered from the first two questions will contribute to investigating ways to improve storm forecast communication to promote public safety.

At least 125 people died (mostly from storm surge) and estimates indicate Sandy is likely to become one of the most costly weather events on record. Thousands of businesses, homes and families were destroyed, many never to recover. If the forecast and government response process contributed to people not taking the threat seriously enough, the time-sensitive information gathered by this project can contribute to an understanding of what went wrong and what might be done in the future to save lives and property.

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