ATLANTIC CITY — A massive, dangerous storm was headed toward the Jersey Shore on Oct. 28, 2012, but what made this storm even more of a threat was how its dangers were eluding the public and the forecasting trip wires established by the National Weather Service.
Gary Szatkowski, who was the meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly that day, knew he couldn’t rely on the established reporting system to sound the alarms. Like a town crier of old, only now equipped with the internet, Szatkowski went online and began making personal pleas to the public and to the media that Superstorm Sandy was going to inflict damage and harm on the coast.
“If you are reluctant to evacuate, and you know someone who rode out the (19)62 storm on the barrier islands, ask them if they would do it again,” Szatkowski included on a public forecast briefing package that National Weather Service sent out in advance of the storm.
The next day, Superstorm Sandy made landfall, causing $29.4 billion in damage to the state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In that shrinking window of time that he had to get the word out, Szatkowski’s local NWS office in Mount Holly did everything in its power to alert the public, media meteorologists and emergency managers to the storm’s full potential. High wind warnings, gale warnings and coastal flood warnings were issued. Their alarms were muted, though, by the storm’s unique status outside of the hurricane classification.
But their message and tone did the trick.
“He basically pleaded and said look, ‘People are going to die.’ … If he didn’t say anything, it could have been worse,” recalled Vince Jones, director of Emergency Management for Atlantic County. “A couple comments that he pushed out were that … you better have your game on, you better be ready.”
With the 10th anniversary of Sandy’s devastation approaching in October, Szatkowski, now retired, spoke about his experiences to a room of emergency managers from across the state at the annual New Jersey Emergency Preparedness Association Conference at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City in early May.
It all seemed straightforward enough on Oct. 23, 2012, six days before Sandy made landfall, when the local NWS’ public briefings were in the early phases of informing people of the potential impacts of the storm. The sternness of the language grew stronger each day, Szatkowski recalled, and by early Oct. 25, the forecast warnings for the Jersey Shore lined up perfectly with the threats, as the state’s coast was planted in the National Hurricane Center’s forecast cone.
Even then, though, he said, achieving communication perfection was the struggle.
Szatkowski explained that operational protocol within the National Weather Service made it more challenging than usual to alert the public. The National Hurricane Center in Miami is responsible for issuing hurricane watches and warnings, which likely would have immediately alerted local residents of the dangers they faced.
However, given that the storm was predicted to make landfall as a “post-tropical cyclone,” those watches and warnings never went up. A post-tropical cyclone is a storm with a cold core, like a nor’easter, and unlike the warm-core storms that define tropical systems. Those warnings are less likely to get people’s attention and get them moving inland.
Another complicating factor was Hurricane Irene’s underwhelming strike the previous year. Irene, like Sandy, made landfall near Brigantine, arriving as a tropical storm on Aug. 28, 2011. It was the first time that Atlantic County issued mandatory evacuations, according to Jones. People were forced to leave in Cape May and Ocean counties as well.
To be fair, Irene did bring impacts: between 3.98 to 8.76 inches of rain fell in southeastern New Jersey, according to the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist. And there were seven fatalities statewide and $1 billion in damage.
But compared to the alarms, which raised expectations of widespread devastation, Irene did not come as advertised. And that, many meteorologists and government officials believe, lulled some people into a false sense of security the following year.
When Sandy arrived, her size and power were much greater than Irene’s, but Szatkowski said past overhyping by some media outlets had created more cynicism about warnings.
Therefore, even when evacuations were issued for the coastline from Sandy Hook to Cape May, not everyone heeded the warnings.
And that was the situation Szatkowski faced when he made his personal plea on the NWS’ website at noon Oct. 28. In addition to making a comparison to the historic 1962 storm, Szatkowski bluntly said that there “will be major property damage,” and that “injuries are probably unavoidable.” He put his contact information online in the unlikely scenario that Sandy did not bring severe destruction so anyone who felt misled could “yell at me all you want.”
Szatkowski concedes that while many in the public enjoyed the candid banter, but not all of his superiors at the weather service approved of his plea.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, several changes have been made to prioritize effective public messaging beyond standard meteorological protocol.
If a Sandy-like storm were to strike again, the hurricane center could issue tropical storm and hurricane watches plus warnings, even after it becomes post-tropical.
Improvements also mean turning to probabilistic forecasting, which can convey the range of impacts.
The National Hurricane Center now shows the earliest reasonable time when tropical storm force winds (above 39 mph) have a 1-in-10 risk of occurring.
In 2015, maps were introduced, showing the potential for storm surge flooding, something Szatkowski pushed for after Sandy left its mark. Storm surge watches and warnings were introduced in 2017, and they would be used if Sandy’s exact track and fury were to repeat.
While the forecasts were, as a whole, accurate, the public would like to have had more confidence in the storm’s prediction. Increased forecasting capabilities are helping to achieve that, including shrinking the “cone of uncertainty,” previously predicted a 66% likelihood of the center of the storm striking an area, but which has now grown more reliable and targeted.
Within the 12- to 120-hour forecast periods, the area of possible strikes has shrunk anywhere from 15% to 30%.
Contact Joe Martucci: