Joe Bastardi / September 4, 2013

The Price You Pay

The heartbreak of a storm like Hurricane Sandy, or any major “unexpected” event, is enough to overwhelm even the toughest of people. Sometimes there may not be a right answer as to what to do. And sometimes realistically stating the problem can seem cruel. But realism has to take over and be dealt with. This article is a good case in point.

The heartbreak of a storm like Hurricane Sandy, or any major “unexpected” event, is enough to overwhelm even the toughest of people. Sometimes there may not be a right answer as to what to do. And sometimes realistically stating the problem can seem cruel. But realism has to take over and be dealt with.

This article is a good case in point.

It’s here where I may seem cruel. I said after Hurricane Katrina – and got roundly criticized for it – that disasters of that magnitude were simply waiting to happen. Katrina was not even the worst-case scenario. Neither was Sandy. If we had a storm with the intensity of Katrina take the same path as the 1947 Fort Lauderdale hurricane, I doubt the newly constructed dikes surrounding New Orleans could withstand the impact. The storm is known as the Fort Lauderdale hurricane because it was a category 5 when it pounded Florida’s East Coast, but was only a category 1 or 2 by the time it struck New Orleans.

The point is: Nature has always been capable of producing a Katrina-type storm taking a path similar to the 1947 hurricane into New Orleans – she just hasn’t done it yet. It’s not global warming; it’s simply nature doing what she is meant to do.

Was Sandy the worst case? No, not by a long shot. Many who have seen me speak on hurricanes have heard me talk about the “Philadelphia Story.” I have been showing it for years: A category 2 or 3 hurricane hits the Delmarva Peninsula from the south-southeast, shoving a storm surge up Delaware Bay. Because of its decreasing width, the surge would keep rising up the bay, similar to what happened in Rhode Island in 1938 and 1954 where a storm surge came up Narragansett Bay. In the meantime, because many lakes are dammed up in the Delaware River Basin, the heavy rains accompanying such a storm would cause waters out of the lakes to release into the river, raising the level coming down the river. So what do you think would happen if the storm surge from the hurricane met the increasing amount of water flowing down the river toward the bay? The water would pile up in a way where people would think it’s some kind of monster movie – yet it’s well within the realm of nature.

Remember, Sandy hit north of the mouth of the Delaware Bay, so it was the areas further north that took the brunt of the storm. A major hurricane coming from the south-southeast at the height of the season, with water temperatures still in the 80s all the way to the coast as far north as Virginia, and one does not need a weatherman to know which way that wind would blow.

Simply take the path of the 1933 hurricane and bring it north.

So, what do we do?

1.) Stop making this a political issue to advance an agenda. Most of the people who study hurricanes have known for years what could – and would – happen. It’s a problem that is natural. That will take some of the emotion out of people who are at each other’s throat. Study this problem and you will see it comes with the territory.

2.) Face reality. People have no idea how bad the weather was in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and it does us no good to see it downplayed. In fact, the whole climate debate has distorted people’s opinion to the point they actually believe the weather is never supposed to be bad. The climatic ambulance chasing of each major weather event – which may never have been reported before – is driving the belief that the weather now is far worse than it ever was. That is nonsense, and it’s starting to hurt in unintended ways. People think there should never be a hurricane or a tornado. Newsflash: This is not the Garden of Eden.

3.) This is the toughest one. One has to understand that there is a price you pay for everything that happens. The fact is, some of the things that are being done now that Sandy has hit are, in my opinion, long overdue. People that live in flood plains are going to get flooded. There are more people living on barrier islands now than 50 years ago. More buildings and more people means more damage and more lives disrupted. But it’s not the weather or climate that has changed – people want to live in areas where this can happen. If you want to live there, you have to realize this. What happened is that what is natural did not show up for years and people just assumed it would not. Now that it has – and could very well show up again, given the cycle we are in – reality sets in. I grew up on the Jersey shore and it breaks my heart to see what happens with this. On the other hand I grew up in a house with a degreed meteorologist who experienced New England hurricanes. He would tell me it’s just a matter of time before the devastating storms came back. If you want to fill in swamps to build the meadowlands, or put houses where in 1950 on Staten Island there was just a swamp, you are thumbing your nose at nature.

4.) Examine closely which structures withstood Sandy best. Remember, Sandy is not a worst-case wind scenario. Raising houses up may not be the right answer. I am sure you have all seen trees swaying and the wind not even blowing on the ground. It can vary enough to be a concern. It may be a case of requiring a much harder structure that can take the surge. Raising a house 10-15 feet does no good if winds are strong enough to blow the house away. I was in Long Branch, NJ a few months after Sandy and noticed the difference in damage of different structures. That is for the engineers, but I thought I would suggest tit.

Interestingly enough, since this is something that I think is in the course of nature – and in fact was not as bad as it could be – I understand this problem. Do I have an answer? No. Sometimes there isn’t one. People have to decide what price they want to pay for what they want. While we can not do much about a tornado, which is a bullwhip out of the sky hitting one place and leaving another alone, when it comes to some of the other things, we have to understand that nature will do what she is meant to do. If you live on a barrier island, each day of tranquil weather is a plus. If you live on a flood plain, same thing. And as small as we are, the best we can do is understand the risks, adjust, and then decide for yourselves: What price will you pay?

Joe Bastardi is chief forecaster at WeatherBELL Analytics, a meteorological consulting firm.

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