Book Talk

Two Years After Hurricane Sandy Hit the U.S., What Lessons Can We Learn From the Deadly Storm?

In an era of extreme weather, we have to keep the risk of weather disasters in the front of our minds, author says.
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Superstorm Sandy batters Atlantic City, New Jersey, on October 29, 2012, as it churns up the East Coast. The final death toll was 147.


Next week marks the second anniversary of one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S history. Superstorm Sandy killed 147 people, left millions without power, and smashed records: lowest barometric pressure of a hurricane to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, highest storm surge, second costliest hurricane, after Katrina.

Kathryn Miles spent two years deconstructing the storm for her book Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Sandy. From her home in Maine, she talks about the tragic loss of the square-rigger Bounty, what the psychology of risk can tell us about hurricane preparedness, and why it's essential to keep funding the Hurricane Hunters.

Why did you write this book? Do you have your own superstorm Sandy story?

I actually grew up in the Midwest, in Tornado Alley. But I'd just come off finishing my last book, about an Irish famine ship called the Jeanie Johnston. It was a square-rigged ship, and there aren't very many of those around in the world anymore. I was down visiting my family in North Carolina when I heard the news that the Bounty had sunk, and I was instantly captivated. I did an article about it for Outside magazine, and in my research for the article I was fascinated by how these three very different groups—the crew of the Bounty, the Coast Guard, and the Hurricane Hunters—were all in the exact same place at the exact same time.

I started thinking: What would bring these three disparate groups together and make all these people willing to risk their lives to be in this catastrophic storm? So the book really began as an inquiry into risk—how we manage risk, and how we make the decisions that we do.

Sandy was actually predicted by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, ECMWF, in Reading, England, a week before it arrived. Tell us about weather models and how they affected forecasting of Sandy, and explain why forecasting the weather is so difficult and why it seems forecasters are always wrong.

The most illuminating and interesting part of my research was understanding how weather works. There are hundreds of weather models around the world. The National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center regularly employ about 40 as an aggregate. We look at different models to tell us different things.

The European model is one that takes a lot into consideration. Along with two that are in the U.S., it's historically been our most reliable. But even the most reliable models are consistently wrong. In any given storm, you'll see five models saying that the storm is going to zig and five saying the storm is going to zag. And that's where the human element comes in. It's the forecasters' job to assess the model, make sure it makes sense, look at how the model has done with other types of storms, and then make a best guess. So there's still a very strong human element.

In the case of Sandy, the European model was the outlier for days. The great irony with Sandy was that it went exactly where the European model said it was going to go. All the other models, including the ones the National Hurricane Center has come to regard as very reliable, were consistently saying, No, the storm is going to go out to sea. It really wasn't until the 25th of October, just four days before the storm made landfall, that the other models started to join the European model in saying that it was going to make this crazy arc into land.

The heroes of your tale in many ways are the Hurricane Hunters. Tell us about these amazing pilots and what they do to protect us.

They're the heroes. They risk their lives every day of the hurricane season to bring back information from the very eye of the storm. They're based in Alabama. Each Hurricane Hunter plane flies with a crew of five: two pilots, a navigator, a meteorologist, and what's called a load master, who's responsible for running the technology. Once a storm looks like it's beginning to organize as a tropical depression, NOAA will call them up. They go out and fly continual missions until the storm is done. They fly directly into the eye of the storm in these amazing C-130 planes, which are these jacked-up submarine-hunter planes that are basically indestructible—but these guys are risking their lives on a regular basis.

Sandy initially formed just off of Columbia and Venezuela, so they were flying these eight-hour missions just to reach the storm. They fly right through it, and it's really their information that fills the gap in the technology available to the meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center.

They told me that their forecasting has improved 30 percent—a huge number in the meteorological world—because of the information they can get from the Hurricane Hunters. They used to be a bona fide branch of the Air Force. They had regular funding, but due to budget cuts, we've reduced the ability of the Hurricane Hunters to do their job. A really important message from the book is where we're going to fund things. One place I would definitely like to see my tax dollars go is to better fund the Hurricane Hunters.

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Five months later, a home ruined by Sandy still slumps on the beach in Mantoloking, New Jersey. The storm narrowed the state's beaches by more than 30 feet on average.


You write about Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on risk assessment and the psychology of how we make decisions, which kind of underpins your book. Talk a little about gut response versus reason.

I spent a lot of time talking to psychologists who specialize in risk. What they explained is that there are basically two different ways that we make decisions: with our gut and with our head.

The gut reaction is the first reaction. When we're faced with something, our mind makes these instant calculations about what's at stake and what's happened before. Based on that, we make decisions. Some people call it intuition. That's part of it. But it's also our brain making quick calculations based on what's foregrounded in its mind.

In the case of the Bounty, the captain made his announcement that the ship was going to depart and enter the storm. The crew had less than an hour to decide whether they were going to stay or go. The psychologists I spoke to told me that they basically had to make a gut decision. They didn't really have time to sit and weigh everything. When we have a little bit more time, our brain starts to take into account many other factors. It asks itself what happened at other times.

So again, in the case of the Bounty the captain thought to himself, "Look, I've been in three or four hurricanes, I've been fine every time, so past precedent and experience says I'm going to be fine again." That kind of precedent weighs heavily in our calculation.

That's what happened to the people on Long Island and Staten Island who disobeyed evacuation orders. They thought to themselves, "I've lived here all my life, I've always been fine during storms, I'm going to be fine right now. Last year we were forced to evacuate for Irene. We left when we didn't need to, our house got looted, we should've followed our gut and stayed."

Then we start to make some other sophisticated considerations. We ask ourselves what our friends and colleagues, the people we love and trust, are doing. This is the lemming response. In the case of the Bounty, the crew looked around them and saw nobody was leaving. So they thought, "These are my people, this is my tribe, and they're staying. I trust their judgment. I'm going to stay too."

We also ask ourselves, "What are the social consequences if I leave my tribe?" So there's a really complex series of decision-making triggers that happen, and if we don't go through the decision-making process from start to finish, we start to rely on one component more than another. And that's when we start to make really bad decisions.

Hurricane Irene influenced a lot of the decisions made in Sandy. It was kind of a "fool me once, shame on me" scenario. How did Irene affect the response to Sandy?

That's a bit of a controversial subject, and it depends on whom you ask. When I talked to the head of the National Weather Service in New Jersey, he said that he felt people were strongly influenced by the Irene scenario. He kept saying, "I don't want anybody saying the word Irene. I don't want anybody thinking Irene. As soon as we think Irene, everybody's going to let their guard down."

When I asked the officials in New York City, both in the mayor's office and in the Office of Emergency Management, they said they felt Irene wasn't really a factor. In the case of Irene, New York City made very strong evacuation decisions very early. They closed the subways, they moved buses. But when Sandy hit, New York City was the last constituency to call for evacuation. They called for evacuations only eight hours before they shut down the subways. The storm was coming, but they waited as long as they possibly could, using Irene as the model.

One of the biggest failures around superstorm Sandy involved communication. Even after New Jersey and Delaware decided to evacuate, Mayor MIchael Bloomberg didn't give the order in New York, thereby confusing our "lemming brain" response.

I think really the lesson of Sandy is how quickly and catastrophically communication broke down. In the areas that were ordered for evacuation in New York and New Jersey, 70 percent of people didn't evacuate. When you compare that to Katrina, in the areas ordered for evacuation in New Orleans, 80 percent of people did evacuate. So you have a complete opposite scenario.

One of the reasons was how badly communication broke down. As soon as Sandy became something other than a hurricane, the National Hurricane Center literally couldn't forecast the storm or issue advisories. Their software packages wouldn't allow it, which is just remarkable to me. So they decided at the 11th hour that they were going to hand off responsibility for forecasting to the local weather service offices. Once that happened, you had this complete breakdown.

When I spoke to the folks at the New York City Office of Emergency Management, they said, "We drill and drill and drill, but we always drill assuming that we're going to be receiving surge numbers, wind numbers from the National Hurricane Center. That's how we expect the data, and that's the data we drill with. As soon as we were getting the data from another office in another form, we were all of a sudden in the fog of war."

People in New York and New Jersey didn't know what was coming at them. Was it a tropical storm? Was it a hurricane? What is an ex-tropical cyclone? A lot of social media misinformation starting to take the lead. People start looking at Facebook and Twitter. All of a sudden you have these amateur meteorologists talking about the storm, and they're not being corrected by the strong arm of the National Hurricane Center. There was a lot of collective confusion.

What is Sandy's message to us, what can we learn from it?

I think Sandy's message to us is that we cannot know how big the risk is. We just have to assume it's huge—and that when a storm is coming and people are telling us to evacuate, we have to listen.

As climate change continues to take hold, these storms are going to get bigger and harder to predict. [See "Rising Seas."] The operations director at the hurricane center told to me that in our lifetime we're going to reach a place where we can't improve our forecasts anymore. Not because they're perfect, but because we no longer have the tools to improve upon them. Then we're going to be left again with this percentage, gambling chance. So we need to put the onus on ourselves to take these kinds of superstorms really seriously.

When I asked the head of the Coast Guard in North Carolina about Sandy, he said, "The thing of it is, Mother Nature plays to win—and she wins every time." And we forget that. When we think about risk, we think about terrorist attacks or nuclear disaster. Very rarely do we put natural and meteorological disaster at the forefront of our collective minds. As a result, we take unnecessary and deadly chances. Sandy is a very powerful and tragic reminder that the result of doing that can be catastrophic.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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