Gary Szatkowski
Gary Szatkowski

How Hurricane Sandy changed meteorology over the past decade

As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, former NWS Meteorologist, Gary Szatkowski shares the lessons learned over the past decade, as well as his predictions for the years to come.

Almost 10 years ago, on Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast of the United States, devastating coastal areas of New Jersey and New York. Despite the impending danger, the storm’s severity was extremely difficult to convey to the public for a number of reasons. 

Currently’s own, Gary Szatkowski, was the meteorologist in charge at the Mount Holly National Weather Service office at the time — making personal pleas to the public on his social media platforms and sending out timely and accurate alerts. Szatkowski was named a “Hurricane Sandy Hero”.

Szatkowski said that because the storm came a year after Hurricane Irene — when the amount of flooding was much less than the forecasters who called for coastal evacuations predicted — people on the Jersey Shore had their guard down. 

“You could tell there was much more reluctance [from]  coastal residents to evacuate,” said Szatkowski. 

Szatkowski also shared that Hurricane Sandy had a “labeling problem.” This is because Sandy transitioned from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm before it made landfall, but the wind speeds and impacts were still equivalent to those of a hurricane. 

“We knew that it would be confusing, and it would send a dangerous message if we had a hurricane warning up and then took it down,” said Szatkowski. “It would be very understandable for people to think; This isn’t so bad anymore. It’s gotten better.”

Szatkowski said that by focusing on impact, during critical times, rather than technical labels, the National Weather Service could avoid public confusion, but this wasn’t the norm for forecasts at the time. 

“I argued that if we focused on the sensible weather, which is the wind speed, the amount of storm surge, the amount of rainfall, and the impacts,” said Szatkowski, “we would avoid the miscommunication and the swapping in and out hurricane warnings at critical times.”

Since Sandy, meteorologists largely have made this shift to impact-focused messaging when forecasting major storms, which Szatkowski calls this, the legacy of Sandy.

The next decade

There has also been substantial investment in storm surge inundation mapping since Sandy. These maps that show exactly how high water and how far inland water will be during major storms. Inundation mapping has been helpful during the storms since Sandy to help illustrate who needs to evacuate and why. Having a visual for this is particularly impactful when dealing with a record-breaking storm where water may rise to levels that many people have not seen in their lifetime.

Szatkowski said that prior to Sandy, the technological means to create these maps existed, but there was no federal funding or investment, despite hurricane Katrina depicting a need for more mapping seven years prior.

“In my personal opinion, it was a crime that the case was not made, at whatever levels, and that the funding could not just be rounded up,” said Szatkowski.

In the next 10 years, Szatkowski said he hopes to see new leaps in public communication in order to grapple with folks’ recent storm experiences, especially as climate change makes storms more intense and dangerous than they have been in past decades. 

As sea levels rise due to climate change, Szatkowski says he also worries about people deciding to ride out a storm that may seem similar to a recent storm, which could be potentially more dangerous, as flooding is more extreme and devastating due to this incremental sea level rise. 

“I think it would affect people who’ve been in an area a while and are familiar with the area but aren’t taking into account how ocean levels have changed during the time they’ve been there,” said Szatkowski.

Additionally, warming waters due to climate change means a rapid intensification of storms. Just last summer we saw how devastating rapid intensification can be as Hurricane Ida outstripped forecasts and saw extreme wind speed intensification in a matter of hours

Szatkowski said that intensity forecasting and forecasting that takes rapid intensification into account is improving but he hopes to see it continue to improve, providing longer lead times for storms to come.

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