The weather-forecasting industry has been lit up for the better part of a month now debating whether lives were lost because hurricane warnings were not issued in the final days before Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast.
At issue was that the storm was transitioning into a “post-tropical cyclone” before it would make landfall, and the National Hurricane Center in Miami is supposed to issue warnings only for tropical weather.
In fact, no hurricane warnings were ever issued for Sandy on the U.S. coast; tropical storm warnings accompanied the massive system’s progress up the seaboard as far as North Carolina, then ceased the morning of Monday, Oct. 29.
But the NHC continued to put out written advisories and warning graphics about “Hurricane Sandy” all that day and night. It repeatedly laid out the prospects for winds stronger than 74 miles an hour and deadly storm surge. At 5 p.m., the last hurricane bulletin warned: “Landfall expected early this evening accompanied by life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds.”
Other than the effects of the 900-mile-wide storm being felt a few hours sooner and over some wider inland areas, the forecasts from days before matched remarkably with reality. By 11 p.m. “Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy” – at least its center – was over New Jersey and the NHC turned forecasting over to the Weather Service’s flood-prediction center and local weather offices.
Would people along the coast been any better prepared or more likely to evacuate if hurricane warnings had been issued for Sandy, as they were for Hurricane Irene the year before? It’s hard to say just what motivates people to react: Past experience, family needs, economics and many other things besides warnings play a role. Perhaps some local officials might have been more aggressive about getting more people out of low-lying areas.
The criticism, coming mostly from private forecasters, has prompted the Weather Service to consider using new, looser criteria for issuing warnings when hurricane-force conditions are expected in a particular area no matter whether the source is tropical cyclone or some other type of cyclone. At the same time, the Weather Service continues looking for ways to make all severe-weather warnings simpler and more relevant to the people who need to react to them.