In the hours leading up to Sandy making landfall along the Jersey Shore last October, meteorologists wrestled with a technical question: Was Sandy really a hurricane?
With at least 125 deaths and $62 billion in damage and losses, making it the 2nd most costly storm in US history, the question of whether is was hurricane may seem like a silly one.
As the old saying goes: If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck.
Based on the wind, storm surge, rainfall and incredibly low atmospheric pressure, most people -particularly those directly impacted- would unquestionably say Sandy was a hurricane.
But speaking at the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans on Wednesday, Dr. Rick Knabb, Director of the National Hurricane Center, suggested otherwise.
"While Sandy appeared to almost everyone to be a hurricane, the fact is, by definition, just before landfall, the storm lost it's tropical characteristics," Knabb said. "It no longer had a "warm core," but rather took on the make-up of a traditional winter-style storm."
While this may seem like a minor technicality, a scientific squabble among weather geeks, the name-calling made for confusion, and some would even argue may have contributed to an unnecessary loss of life.
US Army Lt. General Russel Honore, the man in charge during the confusing days after Hurricane Katrina swamped much of South Louisiana, was blunt in his assessment.
"It boils down to what the common person thinks, you have to put in terms your grandmother can understand," Lt. General Honore said. "If you tell her a storm is coming ashore, she may not do a thing. If you tell her a hurricane is coming, she'll react differently. That key word -"hurricane"- causes people to act."
But because Sandy was moving over colder, north Atlantic water and was sure to transition away from tropical characteristics, no hurricane watch or warning was ever issued north of the North Carolina coast.
Yet the devastation Honore found when he toured the Jersey Shore days after the storm gave him pause.
"What I saw was the result of a hurricane, no question in my mind," he said.
Dan Skeldon, a meteorologist with a TV station in Atlantic City noted that the National Hurricane Center referred to Sandy as either a tropical storm or hurricane for 168 of the 169 hours it was tracked along the East Coast.
The "hurricane part" was dropped just before landfall.
"I just don't get that. I spent far too much time leading up to landfall explaining minuet details that only academics care about," Skeldon said. "Time I should have been explaining what was about to happen to my viewers and warning them to get out of harm's way."
Dr. Knabb acknowledged that the NHC struggled with what to call Sandy, but argues that even if his agency would have issued warnings, he doubts anyone would have acted any differently. He said he was concerned that if warnings had been issued, and then the storm weakened, that even more confusion would have abound.
Knabb also feared that if forecasters would have simply "faked it," and called Sandy a hurricane, even though it technically no longer was, the Weather Service's scientific credibility would have been scrutinized.
So then, where do we go from here?
Starting this hurricane season, which runs June 1 through November 30, the NHC is considering an option that would allow hurricane specialists to issue and keep any watches and warnings out for the duration of a storm. This would be regardless of scientific technicalities, as long as there is a significant threat to life and property.
That seems like a good move in the right direction.
Meteorology is an inexact science, and thus, few issues are ever really cut and dry, but governments, Emergency Managers and most importantly, people, plan on an impact when told a certain set of weather elements are coming their way.
By eliminating any added layers of confusion, it would seem that better choices -as in evacuation- could be more easily made with a more consistent message coming forth from those who issue the watches and warnings.
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