You can call it the Frankenstorm, or the Snowicane, or the Snow’easter, or just plain old Sandy. But whatever you name it, the megastorm that now seems likely to blast much of the East Coast next week could be a natural disaster for the record books.
The rare mix is the result of Hurricane Sandy, a Category 2 storm now hitting the Caribbean, an unusually early winter storm coming from the West and a fierce Arctic air coming from the North. Those air masses are now predicted to combine with each other — right over the country’s most populated and developed stretch of real estate, including New York City. That would make it, well, this:
Seriously, though, this storm is no joke. The perfect storm of 1991 — the one that caused the events in the book and movie of the same name — had a similar makeup but did only about $200 million in damages, largely because its worst effects were felt in comparatively less populated parts of New England. But if, as early forecasts are suggesting, the new storm hits New York and New Jersey, the effects could be worse than last year’s Hurricane Irene. This could be a $1 billion storm at minimum if the hurricane follows the right path.
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The storm is likely to hit first this Sunday, but its effects could easily stretch through Halloween, as government forecaster Jim Cisco told the AP’s Seth Borenstein:
It’s almost a weeklong, five-day, six-day event. It’s going to be a widespread serious storm.
We don’t have many modern precedents for what the models are suggesting.
As if this isn’t bad enough, the storm will also hit during a full moon, when tides will be at their highest. That increases the chance of major coastal flooding, as does the fact that the slow-moving storm is expected to dump several inches of rain onto the New York area. New York City just missed a direct hit from Irene; a little more coastal flooding during that storm, and the damage to infrastructure like commuter railways and the subway could have been catastrophic. New York may not be so lucky this time, as this storm tracker from the Weather Channel shows.
Over at the great blog Weather Underground, Jeff Masters laid out the ugly scenario that could unfold if a souped-up Sandy hits the mid-Atlantic region squarely:
In this scenario, Sandy would be able to bring sustained winds near hurricane force over a wide stretch of heavily populated coast, causing massive power outages, as trees still in leaf fall and take out power lines. Sandy is expected to have tropical storm-force winds that extend out more than 300 miles from the center, which will drive a much larger storm surge than its winds would ordinarily suggest. The full moon is on Monday, which means astronomical tides will be at their peak for the month, increasing potential storm surge flooding. Fresh water flooding from heavy rains would also be a huge concern.
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It’s important to remember that even though Irene didn’t turn out to be the Day After Tomorrow catastrophe that some were forecasting, it still did plenty of damage with its prolonged rains and winds that submerged even inland towns. Even though New York City itself was largely spared, damages were still over $15 billion.
The danger a storm or any other natural disaster poses isn’t primarily a matter of a strength; it’s a matter of where it hits. The 2012 Atlantic hurricane season has been a very active one, with 19 named tropical storms and 10 hurricanes, the latest being Sandy. Most of those storms never made landfall, though, instead spinning back out harmlessly to the ocean. But Sandy, like Irene a year ago, seems to be headed straight for some very expensive and well-populated real estate. That’s a formula for a very bumpy — and wet — week for a whole lot of people. And maybe something worse.