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Weather Nerd

Get The Hell Out

October 27th, 2012 - 8:35 pm

[NOTE: This post was written and published Saturday night, 48 hours before New York City was inundated. It's now getting some retrospective attention, driven in part by my subsequent criticisms of Mayor Bloomberg (which this post proves are not based on unfair 20/20 hindsight). So I've tacked on a "POST-STORM UPDATE" to the end of this post, adding context, trying to fully elucidate my position, and explaining why the fact that Bloomberg did, finally, order a belated Zone A evacuation on Sunday isn't enough to insulate him from the criticisms I made on Saturday. Please read the post-storm update before you start an argument with me about how I'm wrong, because the update most likely addresses the point you were thinking of making. Better yet, instead of arguing with me, donate to the Red Cross. I'm going to go do that now.

And now, for the original post, as written Saturday...]

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Being up in Wyoming with my older girls, away from my computer, I have limited information about Sandy right now. But from what I’m seeing on Twitter, it appears: 1) the computer models indicate that the threat of a catastrophic storm surge in New York City has increased, and is a VERY real (though, of course, not certain) threat; and 2) Mayor Bloomberg has affirmatively decided NOT to evacuate even the most low-lying areas of his vulnerable city, nor even to close the city government or schools Monday.

If I have all of that right, it makes no damn sense at all.

Bloomberg’s error here could be even worse than that of Ray Nagin, who merely delayed too long, but who at least did ultimately give the obviously necessary evacuation order. It’s also hard to square Bloomberg’s inaction with his proactive — and correct — actions in advance of Irene. Perhaps he’s now gun-shy because of ignorant hindsight 20/20 criticisms of that “unnecessary” evacuation. If so, he’s a damn fool, along with those who criticized him then for an evacuation that was fully justified by contemporaneous information.

In any case, if I lived in a “Zone A” or “Zone B” area of NYC, I’d get the hell out, tonight. (Or tomorrow, if I could easily travel by foot to my non-flood-prone destination.) It’s not even a close call. Same goes for any other location in the cone of uncertainty that’s vulnerable to a potential (not certain–it’s never certain–but realistic potential) storm surge of 6-10 feet, plus very high surf on top of that, at astronomical high tide.

Ugh.

If I’m missing or misunderstanding something here, let me know. (For what it’s worth, I’m seeing plenty of meteorologists on Twitter saying the same thing. They’re baffled by Bloomberg’s decision. So am I.)

UPDATE: I’ve now seen and read Bloomberg’s statement. It’s even worse than I thought. He said:

We are not ordering any evacuations as of this time for any parts of the city. We’re making that decision based on the nature of this storm. Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge. With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect from a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago.

So it will be less dangerous – but make no mistake about it, there will be a lot of water and low-lying areas will experience flooding. The City’s Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection will be deployed throughout the city to address flooding conditions.

Let me be clear: I have literally no f***ing idea what Bloomberg is talking about. As closely as I’ve been following Sandy, I have not seen anyone else — literally not a single meteorologist or any other person — suggest that Sandy will produce a “slow pile up of water” rather than a typical “sudden” storm surge. On the contrary, AccuWeather’s Mike Smith writes:

“So it will be less dangerous.” We don’t know that to be the case. The latest barometric pressure associated with Sandy is 960 mb. It is forecast to drop to 937 mb when it is south of NYC (see posting below from 11:40pm CDT). With a pressure that low the winds and surge could be very comparable to a hurricane. It would be an all-time record low for the region, hurricane or not.

All storm surges are, in their initial stages, somewhat slow, gradual pile-ups of water … which then rapidly peak when the storm’s center moves ashore. That’s exactly what’s to be expected here. Bloomberg’s idea of a uniquely slow drip-drip-drip surge doesn’t even make logical sense, and has no scientific basis that I’ve heard anyone articulate. Is he high? Has he lost is mind? I am simply stunned and baffled by this ignorant pronouncement, which will cause people to become complacent, and thus endanger lives.

Can New Jersey please annex New York City so we can get Chris Christie in there to fix this? Good lord.

Perhaps Bloomberg is confused by the National Hurricane Center’s hotly debated nomenclature decision to not use the terms “Hurricane Warning” and “Tropical Storm Warning” north of the Virginia/North Carolina border, choosing instead to use “High Wind Warning” because they expect Sandy to transition to an extratropical storm just before landfall — even though Sandy is a hurricane now and will be bringing hurricane-like conditions to the shore. (If you can’t tell, I disagree with the decision. Almost everyone in the meteorological and weather-nerd community seems to.)

Whatever Bloomberg’s rationale, he’s just absolutely dead wrong, as noted by The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore and Bryan Norcross (who calls Bloomberg’s press conference “incomprehensibly inexplicable”), The Wall Street Journal’s Eric Holthaus, New York Fox 5′s Nick Gregory, WeatherBell’s Ryan Maue (“Bloomberg has baffled everyone with his bizarre press conference”), and many others.

Indeed, let me quote Norcross a little more extensively, to fully explain the problem here:

[Norcross & more after the jump.]

Sandy the super-unusual, combo hurricane/nor’easter on the unheard-of track is coming together as forecast. The computer forecast models predicted that the winds would spread out in the nor’easter part of the storm, and the hurricane part of the storm would struggle a bit then recover. Tropical-storm force winds have spread out to the Virginia coast, and the tropical part of the system looks only so-so on the satellite.

Normally we would say the fat lady has sung, and get ready to fold up our hurricane hunters and go home. But, those same reliable computer models are saying that Combo Sandy is going to get reinvigorated by the jet stream while still getting energy from the Gulf Stream tomorrow and Monday, and get stronger and bigger. And then pounce on the Northeast.

The bigness of the circulation means big problems in at least two ways. A tremendous area from Canada to North Carolina to Ohio will be getting high winds from Sandy at the same time. That means trees down, power out, and a lot of miserable people in the chilly weather after the storm. And more importantly, the amount of energy the storm puts in the ocean water goes up dramatically with the diameter of the high-wind area. Not to mention, Sandy is already one of the biggest hurricanes on record.

When Sandy moves toward the coast, that high-energy water comes with it, which means high storm surge and stunningly high waves.

If the center of the circulation lands on the Jersey Shore, as looks most likely, the focus on that energy is going to be on North Jersey, New York Harbor, and the south shore of Long Island. The National Weather Service in New York is predicting waves 10 to 20 feet high on the south-facing beaches. Holy crap!

Did I also mention that’s on top of the storm surge, which is forecast to raise the ocean level 4 to 8 feet above normal? And did I also mention that there’s a full moon and the storm’s peak is expected to be around high tide? Holy triple whammy!

That NJ/NYC/Long Island elbow is like a catchers mitt for storm surge, on the rare occasion that a big storm comes at it from the southeast or east… just like Sandy’s forecast. The only thing that can stop extremely high water with battering waves from affecting the region is for the forecast to be wrong.

If the forecast is even mostly right, the ocean water will come in higher than during Hurricane Irene, which came within a foot of doing serious damage to NYC infrastructure. And that brings up the incomprehensibly inexplicable news conference by Mayor Bloomberg.

I’m NOT saying that the Mayor should have ordered an evacuation. That’s for him to decide, and it’s a tough decision. But to play down the biggest storm to come along in years – if the forecast is even close – seems bizarrely out of character. There’s no upside in this everything-is-rosy approach. He could have expressed concern for the people whose houses are going to get smashed along the coast, but said AT THIS TIME he was going to hold off on any evacuation orders. A statement like that gives him room to maneuver and people get the message that preparation is required.

The normally well-oiled machine that is the Bloomberg administration seems to have slipped a communications cog. …

The bottom line… let’s all get on the same page. The forecast calls for a massive, destructive storm to affect tens of millions of people. If the forecast is wrong, hooray. But so far it’s been right, and the odds are this is going to be really bad for a lot of people. Everybody’s goal should be to be sure that as many people as possible are as ready and aware as they can be.

About that “Irene came within a foot of doing serious damage to NYC infrastructure” point, a little more detail from Dr. Jeff Masters:

On August 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene brought a storm surge of 4.13 feet to Battery Park on the south side of Manhattan. The waters poured over the flood walls into Lower Manhattan, but came 8-12 inches shy of being able to flood the New York City subway system. …

An excellent September 2012 article in the New York Times…quoted Dr. Klaus H. Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, on how lucky New York City got with Hurricane Irene. If the storm surge from Irene had been just one foot higher, “subway tunnels would have flooded, segments of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and roads along the Hudson River would have turned into rivers, and sections of the commuter rail system would have been impassable or bereft of power,” he said, and the subway tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers would have been unusable for nearly a month, or longer, at an economic loss of about $55 billion.

Ah, but the narrative is that “Irene was overhyped,” so Bloomberg has had to deal with 15 months of overhype trolls telling him the evacuation was unnecessary — as if it’s possible to predict those last 8-12 inches of surge with perfect accuracy 48 or 72 hours in advance. And now he’s apparently succumbed to the trolls’ “wisdom,” and is so eager to avoid incurring their wrath again that he’s literally putting lives at risk in order to avoid the appearance of overreacting is the forecast shifts.

Worse than Nagin? I think you can make that case, as of now.

Bloomberg can still redeem himself, though. As Lockhart Steele points out, many New Yorkers in Zones A and B can “evacuate” by walking a few blocks to a friend’s place. It’s not like New Orleans, where you have to completely leave the area. So if Bloomberg changes course and announces an evacuation, say, Sunday morning, there’s probably still enough time for most people to get out. I can only hope he’s getting frantic phone calls from the NWS and NHC right now, and from other folks less ignorant than he, trying to convince him to do the right thing.

He has to do it before the subway closes, though. Speaking of which: I literally cannot conceive of a situation where it would be appropriate to close the subway due to an anticipated storm surge, but NOT evacuate at least Zone A.

So, yeah. Do the right thing, Mayor Mike. And do it NOW.

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POST-STORM UPDATE, MONDAY, 10:30 PM: Now that New York City has flooded, and this post is getting a lot of attention in retrospect, I figured I should update it to address the fact that Bloomberg did, in the end, belatedly order the evacuation of Zone A. I can imagine people saying that since Bloomberg did, after all, order (part of) the evacuation I was demanding, I am now damning him unfairly in hindsight for not doing more.

That is completely incorrect — nothing I’m saying is hindsight-based — and I’d like to explain why, by citing my other contemporaneous comments on the matter.

Although I did not update this post when Bloomberg announced the Zone A evacuation, I did rejoice on Twitter when it happened. But I also added: “Evacuation of Zone A unquestionably should have been ordered yesterday; we should be thinking about Zone B now. But, better late than never.” That was Sunday morning. An hour later, I reiterated my stance that Zone B residents should evacuate. That night, I said I didn’t know why only Zone A was being evacuated, and that I was “very concerned about Zone B folks. #fingerscrossed” Then, on the morning of the storm, long before its impact on NYC was known, I wrote that Bloomberg “should resign in disgrace if Zone A (or B) folks die b/c of delayed/no evac order.”

As of this writing, I do not know whether any “Zone B” areas where flooded by Sandy. [FRIDAY UPDATE: It appears there was significant flooding in Zone B.] Regardless, if the only thing Bloomberg did wrong was “evacuate Zone A, but not Zone B,” I’d chalk that up to an area where reasonable people can disagree. I do not believe that the failure to evacuate Zone B is an impeachable or resignation-worthy offense. I believe that I would have made a different call, and I did urge people in Zone B to get out — but if that were the only area where I differed with Bloomberg, I wouldn’t be calling for his head.

However, there are two far more serious issues: one relating to Zone A, the other relating to what Bloomberg said in his Saturday press conference.

First of all, as I said in this post on Saturday, there was, by that point, absolutely no question that Zone A needed to be evacuated — that’s not debatable — and there was no reason whatsoever for Bloomberg to delay in giving the order until Sunday morning. All the information he needed was available Saturday; he should have ordered the evacuation then. And this isn’t just arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin; his delay had consequences. He did not give the order to evacuate Zone A until around midday Sunday (approximately 11:30 AM), the day before the storm. The subway was shutting down at 7:00 PM Sunday. That left subway-dependent residents 7 1/2 hours to get out… and it’s not like Bloomberg had been prepping them the previous night, emphasizing that he might well order an evacuation, so they should pack their bags and be ready. He pretty clearly indicated Saturday that he did NOT, at that time, intend to evacuate the city, only paying lip service to the idea of possibly reassessing, if necessary, in the morning. Moreover, nothing really changed overnight, in terms of the forecast; what happened, most likely, was that somebody got Bloomberg’s ear and convinced him that an evacuation was necessary, so he changed his tune Sunday. But his reconsideration came too late for many residents. In addition to the subway problem, many residents had undoubtedly made a firm decision by midday Sunday to stay put, and were not interested in revisiting it. Bloomberg was asking them to scramble and change their plans all around at the last minute, after giving no indication the previous day that he was likely to do so. It was inevitable that many would choose to stay put, defying the evacuation order, who might have left if given more notice.

Now, I realize that I wrote above, on Saturday night, that a Sunday-morning evacuation would “redeem” Bloomberg because it would “probably still [leave] enough time for most people to get out.” However, first of all, I was thinking of a morning announcement a little earlier than 11:30 in the morning. Second, the fact remains that fewer people are going to leave on 7 1/2 hours’ notice than on 24-36 hours’ notice. So Bloomberg’s inexcusable decision not to evacuate Zone A on Saturday, even though partially redeemed by his Sunday change of heart, is not totally redeemed, because the earlier poor decision still had negative consequences. There is no doubt in my mind that more people would have evacuated if Bloomberg had ordered them out Saturday. Not everyone, of course. But more people.

Second of all — and this is actually the more critical point — the statements Bloomberg made Saturday about the surge itself were completely inaccurate and indefensible, as I made clear contemporaneously in this post. Let’s review what he said. He indicated that the decision not to evacuate was “based on the nature of this storm.” Specifically, he said:

Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge. With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect from a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago. So it will be less dangerous.

To summarize, he was asserting that Sandy’s surge would be “less dangerous” than Irene’s surge, and those of other hurricanes, because it would be a “slow pileup” instead of a “sudden surge.” THIS WAS ALWAYS COMPLETE NONSENSE. IT NEVER MADE ANY SENSE AT ALL. IT NEVER HAD ANY SCIENTIFIC BASIS WHATSOEVER. Again, this is not 20/20 hindsight — read what I wrote above, on Saturday:

Let me be clear: I have literally no f***ing idea what Bloomberg is talking about. As closely as I’ve been following Sandy, I have not seen anyone else — literally not a single meteorologist or any other person — suggest that Sandy will produce a “slow pile up of water” rather than a typical “sudden” storm surge. On the contrary…

All storm surges are, in their initial stages, somewhat slow, gradual pile-ups of water … which then rapidly peak when the storm’s center moves ashore. That’s exactly what’s to be expected here. Bloomberg’s idea of a uniquely slow drip-drip-drip surge doesn’t even make logical sense, and has no scientific basis that I’ve heard anyone articulate. Is he high? Has he lost is mind? I am simply stunned and baffled by this ignorant pronouncement, which will cause people to become complacent, and thus endanger lives.

Whatever Bloomberg’s rationale, he’s just absolutely dead wrong … Worse than Nagin? I think you can make that case, as of now.

It’s also worth noting that I was hardly a voice in the wilderness on this. As noted in this post Saturday, numerous meteorologists agreed with me. In fact, I really did not see anyone sticking up for Bloomberg. The unanimity was striking.

And you know what? This stuff matters. I recognize that individual citizens are ultimately responsible for their own decisions to evacuate or not, and Michael Bloomberg didn’t prevent anyone from evacuating. But unless you don’t think public officials’ statements and actions matter at all — in which case you can never criticize or praise an official for their handling of a disaster, because they’re just totally superfluous — surely you have to acknowledge that, at least on the margins, it matters how much urgency an official conveys (and that paying lip service to the concept of urgency isn’t the same as consistently projecting an attitude of urgency).

With Sandy, there were countless accounts of New York residents not taking the storm seriously because they figured it was overhyped and “Irene wasn’t that bad, so it’ll be fine.” What those residents needed was someone to puncture that false narrative and give them good advice…and then it’s up to them whether to take it. Instead, they got a mayor reinforcing their inaccurate beliefs about the severity of the storm, even as he also said that it was still dangerous. Basically, he was sending mixed messages — and people who are already skeptical, who then receive a mixed message, are likely to remain skeptical. So in that regard, Bloomberg failed to lead.

The bottom line is this. If Bloomberg had properly conveyed the magnitude of the coming disaster — which was completely foreseen; it was not “unexpected” at all — residents would have had more, better information about how to handle it, and then the ball would have been totally in their court, and Bloomberg wouldn’t be subject to any criticism for poor decisions by individual residents who ignored his good advice. But instead, Bloomberg gave out completely misleading, scientifically inaccurate information, presented as “fact” (and inevitably regurgitated in the media, as authoritative-sounding executive officials’ statements generally are), which inevitably reinforced the pre-existing skepticism of those who felt Sandy was nothing but a hypestorm. Thus, Bloomberg increased complacency about the storm. His initial evacuation decision fed into this same complacency, and his belated partial change of heart came too late to fully undo the damage.

These two things, combined, are the reason I believe Bloomberg was a complete and utter failure here, and why I have argued that accountability demands that “Hizzoner” no longer have that title (just as accountability demanded that Ray Nagin resign or be voted out; how he got re-elected, I’ll never understand). Bloomberg, like Nagin, has failed in one of his most basic roles.

And no, I can’t prove that a specific person or persons changed their preparation decisions based on Bloomberg, nor can I estimate how many did so. But that’s not really the point, because again, Bloomberg isn’t responsible for individual residents’ decisions. What he’s responsible for are his own words and actions. Here, he was in a position to influence people’s decisions — whether or not they actually listened — and he used that position of influence, at least in part, in such a way as to needlessly create or exacerbate complacency, thereby endangering lives. That alone is enough to warrant some harsh criticism and, I would argue, some sort of accountability.

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