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Officials Warn of Hurricane Sandy’s Rare Damage Potential

Federal weather forecasters and emergency management officials are warning residents along the East Coast to prepare for major impacts from Hurricane Sandy as it transitions into a larger, more powerful hybrid storm that will take an extremely unusual path. The track and forecasted size of the storm could make it rival or exceed the impacts from some of the worst coastal storms on record in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, such as 1991’s Perfect Storm and the Ash Wednesday storm in 1962, which is regarded as the worst coastal flooding event on record along the Jersey shore.

An atmospheric "blocking pattern" will push Sandy north, and then northwestward, into the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: Remik Ziemlinski, Climate Central.

The storm is expected to parallel the Carolinas during the day on Saturday, and it may intensify somewhat after possibly weakening to a tropical storm, said National Hurricane Center branch chief James Franklin during a conference call with reporters on Friday afternoon. Then Hurricane Sandy, which may be referred to by that time as “Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy” as it draws more and more energy from the jet stream rather than only the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, should be punted northwestward, making landfall on Monday night or Tuesday anywhere from coastal Delaware to Southern New England.

The storm system — dubbed "Frankenstorm" by the the media — is expected to have a much larger windfield and swath of heavy rainfall, as well as area of storm surge risk, than a typical hurricane, said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in College Park, Md. Uccellini has long studied powerful Northeastern storms.

“It is really going to be a massive storm system,” Uccellini said. He said that while he wouldn’t make comparisons to other storms until this one is over, there are indications that this one could be stronger than the Perfect Storm. In addition, unlike The Perfect Storm, this one may wrap Arctic air into it, dumping accumulating snow in West Virginia and Southeast Ohio on Monday and into Tuesday.

FEMA director Craig Fugate said he briefed President Obama about the storm threat on Friday morning, and that the agency is already moving resources into the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as a precaution. He said the wide scope of this storm — at its height it may encompass the eastern third of the country, with warnings up from Virginia to Maine and westward to Ohio — is a challenging factor for emergency managers. “This won’t be a point specific [event] as much as area specific,” Fugate said, noting that the landfall location shouldn’t be a major focus for the public.

Computer model guidance showing the potential tracks that Hurricane Sandy may take.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: NCAR.

Fugate urged people in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to take actions this weekend to prepare for Sandy, since the storm is still three to four days away. “This storm is still some ways off in many parts of the country; you have the weekend to get ready. But that window will close,” he said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city government will consider whether to shut down all or part of the transit system ahead of the storm, as it did in what was then an unprecedented step prior to Irene. The storm surge from Irene came within a few inches of flooding the subway tunnels of lower Manhattan, despite the actions taken by transit officials, and based on some computer model scenarios, this storm could bring a far larger storm surge to the city.

Uccellini said that several factors are converging to make Sandy a particularly menacing storm in terms of its storm surge potential. “We’re at a lunar tide, and with a slow moving system like this you increase the potential for inundation just for that alone,” he said. Uccellini also noted that the storm will be moving slowly from east to west as it approaches the coastline, an angle that is ideal for maximizing the surge potential.

Bloomberg said about 395,000 people live in the zone that would be evacuated first, if evacuations are indeed ordered. Several states have already declared states of emergency in advance of Sandy, including Maryland, New Jersey, New York, coastal North Carolina, and Virginia.

If the storm should cause long-lasting and widespread power outages, it could have an influence come Election Day on Nov. 6.

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