NewsNovember 13, 2012

Senator Urges NOAA Not To Change Sandy Classification

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

When Hurricane Sandy came ashore near Atlantic City on the evening of October 29, the storm was no longer classified as a hurricane, according to the National Weather Service. Instead, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami determined that the storm had transitioned into a hybrid storm known as a “Post-Tropical Storm” shortly before landfall. That change was made because the storm exhibited characteristics similar to the Nor’easters that frequently lash the Northeast coast during the fall and winter — such as a broad expanse of wind and precipitation with the strongest rains and winds far-removed from the center of the storm. In a purely tropical storm system, the strongest winds and rain are located in a small core close to the storm center.

Storm waves and surge cut across the barrier island at Mantoloking, NJ, eroding a wide beach, destroying houses and roads, and depositing sand onto the island and into the back-bay. The yellow arrow in each image points to the same feature.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: USGS.

As Climate Central reported on Nov. 2, the storm status change has major implications for property owners who are filing insurance claims for storm damage, since most hurricane insurance policies have deductibles that would have been triggered if the storm still had been a named hurricane at the time of landfall, and if hurricane warnings were in effect.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer (D) is now seeking to ensure that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does not retroactively label the storm a hurricane during the course of a storm review, since doing so would raise deductibles for millions of home and business owners. According to The Hill, Schumer sent a letter to NOAA requesting that the storm be labeled a tropical storm or some other classification, rather than a hurricane. The letter also went to insurance companies.

“Today, we’ve sent a letter to NOAA, the weather agency, as well as to the insurance companies that we’re looking over their shoulder. We want NOAA to keep this classified as a tropical storm and to save homeowners in New York and Long Island thousands of dollars, and we don’t want the insurance companies to play any games,” Schumer said in a radio interview.

The deductibles typically range from 1-to-5 percent of the covered value of a home. So, if a home is insured for $300,000, and there is a deductible of 5 percent, the homeowner would have to pay $15,000 before getting back any money from their insurance company.

In the past, the Weather Service has made changes to the intensity rating of hurricanes years after the storms made landfall, as was the case with Hurricane Andrew. That storm struck South Florida in 1992 as a Category 4 hurricane, but it was upgraded to Category 5 intensity a decade later after meteorologists reviewed storm data.

However, it would be extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, for a storm like Sandy to be switched from a post-tropical storm to a hurricane, given that such classifications involve fundamental storm structure and not just the strength of the winds.

Satellite loop from the University of Wisconsin, showing Hurricane Sandy becoming post-tropical as it made landfall in New Jersey.

Hurricane Sandy is expected to be one of the top 10 costliest hurricanes on record in the U.S., with some total damage estimates rising to $50 billion to $100 billion. (Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ranks as the costliest hurricane to strike the U.S., costing more than $100 billion.) Therefore, for insurance companies, there is a lot at stake in the wake of this storm, including dealing with seemingly trivial differences in the title of storm warnings.

On Monday, the Weather Service announced that it appointed a review team to examine the agency’s performance in forecasting Hurricane Sandy and its impacts. Such “service assessments” are typically done after a major storm event, particularly a deadly event, but in a rare move, the agency turned to an outside expert. Leading that review will be Mike Smith of AccuWeather, a private weather forecasting firm and a frequent critic of the agency, to be a co-leader along with Nezette Rydell, the meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service forecast office in Denver.

On his blog, Smith has written that the Weather Service should have issued hurricane warnings for New Jersey and New York, despite the storm’s hybrid nature, because such warnings typically garner a more significant public safety response than the warnings that were issued. On Nov. 2 Smith wrote:  “[NWS’] decision not to issue a hurricane warning as a hurricane was approaching the coast was, in my opinion, disastrous. That is just my opinion. We need objective facts. To what extent did this decision influence Mayor Bloomberg and others to delay evacuations and/or make the evacuations less extensive than they should have been? Did this decision contribute to the drownings on Staten Island and elsewhere when the hurricane's storm surge overtook the island and the coastline?”

The review team is expected to address those questions, and many more, during the next several months before issuing their report.

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