Imagine for a moment that your state spends $100 billion each year. The nation spends roughly $3.5 trillion each year. Now, what if I told you that between your state and the nation, you could spend about $10 billion to insure against $100 billion or more in future losses? Does that sound like a good deal? What if I told you that in any given year though, you only have about a 0.2% chance of seeing that event you’re insuring against? Seems like a low risk. Do you think that $10 billion would be better spent elsewhere or not spent at all?
This is the issue Southeast Texas is grappling with.
On Thursday, one of the most important pieces of journalism written about the risk of a worst case scenario hurricane in the Houston area was published. The Texas Tribune/ProPublica mashup called “Hell and High Water” is worth your time. It describes, in detail, how a worst case scenario storm would play out in Houston. Without any mitigation or protective measures, the economic, human, and environmental cost of a worst case hurricane would be utterly catastrophic.
I read stories like this a lot. I’m a meteorologist. I work in energy. I’m pretty well acquainted with the concept of risk. And the more I read these stories, the more I ask myself: What in the hell are we doing?
It’s 2016. I fully appreciate the skeptical world we live in, where cable news is shouting at us 24/7 in hyperbolic terms about the next big threat. There is an element of hyperbole that exists in media, and yes, sometimes in science too. Objectively, this idea of a worst case scenario storm is not hyperbole, not in the least. If Hurricane Rita in 2005 had tracked further south and west, or if Ike had been a tad stronger or bigger and tracked a tad further south and west, Houston would have been in a bad, bad place.
Yes, that’s 2 storms in the last 11 hurricane seasons that had the potential to be a worst case scenario for Houston. It’s not difficult to get monster hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. This area has been hit time and again by big ones. The concept isn’t new. It will continue.
Someone might argue that it’s just that “global warming alarmism.” Here’s the thing. Even if climate change weren’t real (it is). Even if sea levels weren’t rising (they are). This would *still* be as serious a concern as it is today.
So again, I ask: What in the hell are we doing? From this article, there are multiple groups spending millions of dollars to conduct multiple studies on this issue. And no one is committed to implementing any one of these plans. We have the information we need to get this thing moving. But what do we do? Because no major storm has threatened us since Ike, we sit on our hands, dawdle, and just hope and pray it never happens? People don’t see true risks until they’re realities. And over time, interest, concern, and motivation to act fades. Why are we still doing this in 2016, when we have the technology and capability to SEE risks before they happen? Think about that. We have abilities to understand and protect against disasters that even 50 years ago weren’t possible. It’s borderline miraculous.
Everything’s about saving money and gearing up for the next election. We see candidates for president arguing about the size of their hands and who can get married. Newsflash: We have clear evidence that we can mitigate potentially hundreds of billions in losses and unspeakable environmental and human catastrophe for what amounts to a drop in the bucket in terms of what we spend in this state and country. It would be great if we actually acted proactively and did something for the actual good of the people for a change. We have an incredible gift to see trouble coming. We also have a way to help minimize the toll. Why throw that away?
Oh hi, blog. I haven’t seen you in about 9 months. Let’s talk about Sandy. Numerous friends/family have asked me questions about this storm already. Hype is in overdrive, but we don’t do hype here.
Sandy is Jamaica’s problem at present, en route to Cuba, the Bahamas, and a brush with coastal South Florida. Not a severe storm relative to what is often experienced in these areas (though it’s interesting to note this is Jamaica’s first landfalling storm since Gilbert in 1988). So where’s it going from here?
We have two main models we look at (among many others): The GFS and European (Euro). For the last few days the GFS has kicked Sandy out to sea harmlessly, whereas the Euro has blown Sandy up into a monster superstorm, with varying landfall points from New Jersey to New England. The GFS is not a very skillful model with tropical systems in most cases. During Isaac, for several days the GFS suggested the storm would hit the Big Bend of Florida, while the European model went between Pensacola, FL and west of New Orleans. It wasn’t until we got within 48-72 hours of landfall that the GFS showed skill. We’re presently 4-5 days from first impacts with Sandy. That said, even the GFS began to come around today. I pasted an image above of the GFS ensemble members from this morning, which shows multiple ones with a big hit somewhere between NJ and New England.
Now, I do believe the European model is grossly overdoing the intensity of the storm (it missed Irene last summer by about 30 mb of pressure). It’s currently showing 930-940 mb for a central pressure, which is massive. I suspect that comes in reality between 955 and 970 mb. Either way, we’re talking about a big storm.
What does this mean for you?
I am not prepared to make a call on exactly where Sandy will go or how strong it will be or specific impacts, but I will give you some ideas of my thinking:
– Sandy will come ashore later Monday or early Tuesday somewhere between southern NJ and New England.
– Impacts will include strong tropical storm force winds across most of the Northeast and Mid Atlantic, with possible hurricane force gusts on the coast (highest risk of this right now seems to be the New England coast). Whether we get those really strong gusts remains to be seen.
– A full moon will enhance coastal flooding, as a long duration “fetch” over the open ocean could lead to very high tides from NJ north into New England, with west side flooding possible in Delmarva/Hampton Roads.
– Extremely heavy rain will fall, especially inland I believe. The inland flooding threat is difficult to peg down. It may not rival Irene…or it may; it just may occur in a different place. Do not underestimate this angle of the storm.
– Snow will be possible in western Maryland, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania as cold air wraps in behind the storm.
What should you do right now? Well, not much. First: Do not panic. Unnecessary….this is not the end of the world. It may just end up like your usual strong nor’easter. That said, it may not be a bad idea to get out in front of this storm and get some hurricane supplies set up before the media hype goes into overdrive (that should occur tomorrow evening). I would advise this for anyone living from NJ into New England, including NYC. Stay tuned to the forecast, and if you have plans Sunday night through Tuesday, start coming up with backup plans you can implement, just in case.
I will be less accessible than usual due to work obligations, so I may not post frequently about this.
Note that the only *official* information is what you hear from local emergency management and the National Weather Service/National Hurricane Center. I’m just offering you my own opinion on how this may shake out.
If you are ordered to evacuate, do so…this storm isn’t a drill. There’s always a chance it “might not be that bad,” but ALL indications are that it will be that bad. This forecast is not hyped…this is simply what we’re seeing right now from the computer models. Breaking this down region by region….note that the timing could change by 3-6 hours in any given location depending on how fast Irene ultimately tracks.
NC Outer Banks: Should see the brunt of the storm with sustained cat 1-2 hurricane winds and gusts perhaps to cat 3 intensity. Conditions deteriorate Friday afternoon, with the brunt of the storm late Fri night and into early afternoon Saturday. Major wind/flooding from Hatteras north. Models have indicated some increase in rainfall intensity near landfall, so 10″ or more of rain is possible on top of storm surge flooding. Conditions will improve Saturday night.
Norfolk/VA Beach: Area could see substantial Cat 2-3 gusts and some Cat 1, maybe low end 2 sustained winds. In addition to piling of water into the harbor there, rain amount of up to 10″ or more will likely exacerbate flooding there. Height of the storm will be Saturday morning through Saturday evening.
Richmond to Raleigh Breezy conditions, with tropical storm force gusts (40-50 mph) likely in Richmond. Any further west track of the storm will increase the risk of strong tropical storm force wind gusts (60 mph or more). Raleigh will see perhaps a low end tropical storm force gust or two, along with minimal rain (probably an inch or less). Richmond could see substantially more rain depending on the exact track…likely 2-5″, but potential for more. Height of the storm will be Saturday morning through Saturday evening.
Delmarva: You will get hit very hard with storm surge flooding, sustained tropical storm to category 1 hurricane force winds and gusts easily into the category 2 hurricane range (> 90 mph). Very heavy rainfall to the tune of 6-10″ is likely. Height of the storm is mid to late morning Saturday into early Sunday morning.
Southeast NJ (Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland) and the Delaware Beaches: Storm surge flooding is likely at times of high tide, especially Sunday morning…possibly Sunday evening as well if this slows down further. Wind gusts of 80-90 mph. Sustained tropical storm force winds. 6-10″ of rain likely, but any shift further west would knock you down to 4-8″, but increase the storm surge/wind/isolated tornado potential. Barrier Islands will be impossible to get to, and will likely be impossible to get around on Sunday. The brunt of the storm will hit late Saturday afternoon to early afternoon Sunday.
DC-Baltimore: Heavy rain and flooding will be the major stories. Any further shift west will exacerbate rain totals, which should be 3-6″. Also, any further shift west will allow for more storm surge up the Chesapeake. This would cause substantial tidal flooding…but that is not the main concern right now. Winds should be sustained at least low end tropical storm, with some strong TS gusts likely. Rain will drop off substantially west of the cities. Worst of the storm will be late Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning.
Philly/SW Jersey/Trenton: The current forecast track keeps you in the solid 3-6″ rainfall band, with higher amounts possible with a shift to the west. Significant to record flooding on some rivers is possible. Winds will be tropical storm force, with the potential for a few hurricane force gusts, especially in NJ. Height of the storm will be Saturday evening through mid afternoon Sunday. Also note that tidal Delaware River and Delaware Bay flooding is likely with this storm, especially if the track shifts any further west.
Metro New York City/North Jersey/Long Island: Same story here… heavy rain, up to 6-10″ with locally higher amounts, dropping off west of I-81 in Pennsylvania. Storm surge flooding is a distinct possibility in Manhattan, as well as from LBI to Sandy Hook and obviously on Long Island. Current projections would be Cat 2 storm surge flooding potential from Cape May to Sandy Hook. Strong winds, mostly tropical storm force, but could be hurricane force at times in Ocean and Monmouth Counties. Gusts to hurricane force/80 mph or so in Ocean/Monmouth/NYC/Long Island likely, gusts to tropical storm force in inland Jersey/NY. Height of the storm will be Saturday night into late Sunday afternoon or evening.
Upstate NY (Syracuse-Albany): Heavy rain in the Hudson Valley… 6-10″ south, 4-8″ north. Any shift west will push amounts into the widespread 6-12″ zone. Rain will drop off steadily west of Albany (1″ every 5 miles or so to just some squalls Syracuse/Utica) Winds will gust to tropical storm force, especially at higher elevations, mostly in the Hudson Valley. Wind gusts should edge back to 20-30 mph between Syracuse and Utica. Height of the storm will be from mid to late Sunday morning into Sunday evening or night.
Connecticut/RI/Mass (incl Cape Cod and Boston): Heavy rain likely, especially along and west of I-91…any shift west or east will shift that axis. Rain amounts of 6-10″ west and 3-7″ east. Again, any shift in track shifts that. Winds will gust to hurricane force as you will be on the eastern, or stronger side of the storm. Some sustained category 1 hurricane winds will be possible on the Connecticut shore, southern RI, Block Island, the Cape, and the Islands. Rain may be more squally or sporadic and the potential does exist for brief weak, but damaging tornadoes anywhere at any time. The height of the storm for you looks to be late Saturday night into Sunday night or early Monday morning.
Northern New England/Maine: Widespread tropical storm force wind gusts, with some isolated hurricane force gusts on the Maine/NH coasts. Rain of 6-10″ likely. Height of storm Sunday afternoon into Monday morning.
Can this forecast change? Yes. If the track of Irene is a little further west, the storm may weaken a little faster over land, causing less in the way of wind gusts, but it would also put different people on the eastern side of the storm for longer, creating more of a coastal flooding problem. Either way, someone is looking at substantial to serious flooding because of rainfall. It’s just a question of who. The forecast could also change if Irene makes any unexpected wobbles between the Bahamas and North Carolina. A shift in course of 25 miles in either direction will move people’s impacts around rather substantially because of the angle this storm is going up the coast at.
Could Irene go out to sea? Strongly doubt it. Most of the computer guidance has come into very good agreement now, and within 72 hours, such a dramatic change in the forecast would be almost unprecedented. It’s running out of time to make a move that would cause this.
Should I evacuate? I cannot tell you what to do or make that decision for you. Heed the advice of local emergency managers or law enforcement.
How bad will the aftermath be? The storm surge flooding should subside Sunday night and Monday from south to north. This is the type of storm that has the potential to permanently alter the coastal geography and it’s not impossible to think that new inlets could form or water may never recede from certain locations. Be prepared to find that in a few areas. The soaking wet record month in PA/NJ/DE has saturated the ground. Add even modest tropical storm force winds and an average of 6-10″ of rain, and fully leaved trees/power lines will be coming down by the hundreds. Expect widespread, potentially long duration power outages up to a week or longer over a VERY wide swath of the region impacted by Irene.
This has all the makings of an historic storm. Yes, there is the off chance that the storm is “not that bad,” but given all the information we currently have in front of us, it would be very difficult to say that that is a possibility. This is the most serious storm since Hurricane Gloria and possibly back further than that. Please heed all warnings and orders from the appropriate authorities. Hunker down, be strong, be safe, and life will go on!