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Storms on Steroids

January 2, 2020

Since abnormal weather is becoming the new normal and big storms are getting bigger and moving together,  instead of complaining about it, as boaters, fishermen and coastal property owners, we need to think in terms of anticipating what we can expect from future storms and how we will protect our boats, our property and ourselves. Knowing the difference between the kinds of storms we’re likely to experience, knowing the kind of damage they can do and learning how best to protect ourselves, our boats and our coastal real estate may help us get through bad weather.
We now read in the news and see on TV the effects of powerful coastal storms called “Bomb Cyclones.” The criteria for a storm to be called a Bomb Cyclone has to do with the barometric pressure falling at least 24 millibars  (0.71 inches) in a 24 hour period. A coastal storm from the mid-Atlantic area to New England this past fall was considered a Bomb Cyclone Storm and was said to have the equivalent low pressure of a Category 1 hurricane.
Like the Nor’easter, a Bomb Cyclone is a low pressure system that forms along the East Coast of North America, usually developing between Georgia and New Jersey. The Nor’easter gets its name from the direction of the wind. Nor’easters are often big storms with an eye in the center, much like the eye in a hurricane.
Tropical storms are called hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, depending on where they are located. Hurricanes usually start off the coast of Africa, intensify as they move toward the Caribbean and  then north. Hurricanes form over the North Atlantic and North East Pacific Oceans.  Cyclones form over the Pacific and Indian Oceans and typhoons form over the North West Pacific Ocean.
Storm surge is a factor in judging how powerful and destructive a storm has been. Surge is the rise of water generated by a storm over and above the predicted  astronomical tides. Storm surge, when it coincides with normal high tides, can result in flood levels of over twenty feet. Surge is produced by the force of the wind pushing the water toward the shore. Storm surge from Hurricane Katrina caused flooding of 25 to 28 feet above normal tide levels. The Long Island Express Hurricane of 1938 that hit Long Island and New England caused a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet that inundated coastal areas of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Southeastern Massachusetts and Long Island in New York.  
Although there is no meteorological category for superstorms and describing Hurricane Sandy as “Superstorm Sandy” was considered a media invention, the public, shocked at the extent of the damage caused by the monstrous sized storm, needed a superlative way to set Sandy, the hurricane that combined with a Nor’easter,  apart from other hurricanes. The Superstorm did $32 billion in damage to New York and caused economic loss of $30 billion to New Jersey. As Hurricane Sandy left Florida to go north, heading out over the Atlantic Ocean, it was pushed back toward land. By the time it made landfall in New Jersey, it resembled the Nor’easter that had enveloped it. Sandy was so destructive because of several factors. It was slow moving, it came during full moon and it was a large storm, over 1,000 miles in diameter. The official name for Hurricane Sandy from the National Hurricane Center  is “Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.”
Storm surges from Superstorm Sandy came at times of high tide, with a full moon, compounding the abnormal rise from the storm. Freeport, New York had a surge  of almost eight feet, Rockaway  had almost nine feet and  Toms River in New Jersey had a surge close to five feet. The surge level at Battery Park in New York City was close to fourteen feet.
Coastal geography is a key factor in storm surges. In New York Harbor the surrounding coastline acted as a funnel, bringing more and more water into a narrowing area. As the water came in faster and faster, it had no place to go but up, flooding the area it had reached.
Compared to the March storm of 1962 that hit New Jersey by surprise, Sandy came with plenty of warnings. A hurricane is more a progression of predictable events than other storms.  There are satellite pictures of its movement. When it arrives it hits, then the calm area of the eye passes over, then the other side of the storm hits and it moves on. The winter (early March) storm of 1962 that some called the “Ash Wednesday Storm” and newspapers called the “Great Atlantic Storm,”  hit New Jersey without much warning. Two storms connected. The first one from Iowa moved into Virginia, dumping significant snow as far south as Alabama and cooling Miami to 31 degrees. The second storm  formed off Georgia and  joined the first storm.  The combined two storms were held in place by a cold front  that moved down from Canada. It was a big storm with a fetch of 600 miles.  The ocean waves were 30 footers  that destroyed the storm recording equipment on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. The storm arrived close to spring equinox and coincided with a new moon. It arrived in New Jersey on a Monday night and continued through Thursday morning with hurricane force winds , freezing rain, hail and snow.
Similar to Fire Island in New York and the Outer Banks in North Carolina, New Jersey’s Long Beach Island is an 18 mile strip of beach, houses and businesses that separates the Atlantic Ocean from Barnegat Bay and protects the mainland.  The high tide on that Tuesday night in 1962 removed the dunes and undercut bulkheads on Long Beach Island. The next high tide wiped out the beaches. By Wednesday the high tide reached the houses and moved them off their foundations. It cut inlets across the island. One island became six islands.
Residents with flooded or damaged houses slept in the firehouse. They ate there and spent their days there. They all slept in the clothes they came in – “In four days and nights everyone started to look on the untidy side,” one of the survivors noted.
What’s the best way to protect our boats in future storms? BoatUS has a website “BoatUS.com/Hurricane” that provides excellent videos on multiple topics on protecting our boats. Most of the BoatUS workers would have their own boats hauled  for a storm. Based on their 20 years of experience, BoatUS says the best predictor  of your boat’s survival is where it is kept.  They like to see boats strapped down to an anchor or an eye in concrete and will reduce the boat owners’ deductible from 5% to 3% if they secure their boats that way.
What have we learned from our storm experiences? Waterfront homeowners have raised their houses and put in generators above the area flooded by Superstorm Sandy. We should also be thinking about our power providers and getting the power companies to raise any of the grid foundation that supplies our power needs to places and levels where they won’t be exposed to flooding. We need to force gas stations to have stand-by generators to avoid the long lines at the few stations that do have generators. Hospitals need to have backup systems in place for generating their own power and providing oxygen. New York City has to consider a protective wall similar to Holland’s wall to protect residents, the subway trains and tunnels from flooding.
There will always be hurricanes and probably more of the combined storms. No one knows if we’ve seen the 100 year storm yet. With nearly half of the US population living within 50 miles of a shoreline, we need to learn survival skills from those who have lived through these storms at close range.


 

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