It's cold and getting colder with a soaking nor'easter set to blow through the storm zone Wednesday night through Thursday. People in New Jersey, New York, and southern New England that are stuck without heat are going to need help to get through this week.
The current forecast storm track would cause minor coastal flooding, gusty winds that could bring more power problems, and wet snow at higher elevations. But the biggest threat is the cold, wet, and windy weather's impact on people that are not prepared to deal with more misery. We need a big effort. There are a lot of folks and there's a lot of misery.
Meanwhile, the big-storm cleanup is underway, and there is already talk about what should be done "to be sure it doesn't happen again". That's all well and good, but we're not even 100 percent sure what happened at landfall, so let's start there.
What was going on with Sandy at landfall?
Sandy was behaving as forecast through most of the day last Monday. It was an off-the-charts unusual storm - something like a hurricane embedded in a nor'easter - but the forecast nailed it in almost every way. Then something changed Monday afternoon.
Instead of slowing down as forecast, it took off like a rocket ship heading for the South Jersey coast. On that pace and track, the center would have crossed the coast near Cape May about 6 PM. But the center hung something of a right and it took 2 hours longer to get to the coastline farther north, 5 miles from Atlantic City. At least that was the National Hurricane Center analysis at the time it was happening.
Additionally, at 7 PM, with the center less than 20 miles offshore, the NHC declared Sandy "post-tropical". In other words, in their analysis, the technical, meteorological structure of the system wasn't enough of a hurricane anymore to continue with that classification. Well... maybe, maybe not.
There were complicated things going on near landfall and it's going to take detailed analysis to figure out what the center of the hurricane part of Sandy did, and how it related to the nor'easter part of the storm. This type of post-analysis happens with every storm, but in this case it could have big ramifications.
If the conclusion is that Sandy was still a hurricane - meaning the structure of the system was mostly tropical, not mostly nor'easter - what does that do to insurance deductibles? In many cases big deductibles kick in when a "hurricane" makes landfall, as opposed to a tropical storm or some other freak-job of a storm structure. Hurricane warnings can play into it as well.
There have already been very official sounding proclamations by governors and other optimists that the big deductibles will NOT apply since it wasn't a hurricane. There is the potential for a big mess here if the science proves otherwise.
Hurricane Hunters were flying through the center of the hurricane part of Sandy right up until landfall, so there will be lots of data to analyze. It usually takes some months before the final conclusions are formulated.
So what about hurricane insurance?
It's a nightmare and an embarrassment. It's a nightmare because there is no such thing as "hurricane insurance". What? Shock! Wait! I'm paying an insurance company for something they call hurricane insurance, how can that be?
Insurance works by averaging losses. An insurance company knows, plus or minus, how many house fires or car wrecks there are going to be in a year, calculates an average loss number, and figures out what it has to charge to pay those losses, run their business, and make a profit. If you can count, you can sell that kind of insurance, pretty much.
But, hurricanes don't happen very often, so what's the average? There is no good answer, so they make something up, and justify it with ridiculous computer models, which don't represent reality as much as they allow for higher insurance premiums. And this way, every time a big storm comes along, the number gets bigger and the premiums go up.
That means that insurance companies make record profits, as long as there are no big hurricanes.
The fact is, there is no answer. Hurricanes are not like car wrecks. You're not going to suddenly have double the number of accidents, for example, or fires or people dying. But the insured damage from a single hurricane can be astronomical, even after years of little or no payouts. And then there could be another mega-storm next week. And maybe another after that. Pick up the history book, it happens.
Events that don't happen regularly enough to be averaged are, by definition, not insurable. Everybody in the insurance industry know that, but they are making LOTS of money. So, it doesn't roll off anybody's tongue when the subject of raising rates comes up.
The embarrassing part of this is that legislators in Washington and elsewhere should have done something about this years ago. There is really only one solution, which I detailed in my 2007 Hurricane Almanac - page 176 if you're counting.
After every big disaster, the federal government coughs up untold billions of dollars to help people without insurance, to rebuild things that got smashed, to bail out cities, counties, and states, you name it. That's political reality. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm just saying it's irresponsible to do it on an ad hoc basis every time, when an organized system is possible, which would save money.
The idea is to put a ceiling on the private-insurance-industry losses from big disasters in any given year by creating a federal fund that would kick in when there's a catastrophe. That would lower rates because insurance companies would know what their maximum loss could be, and it would bring in more companies. The threshold would be high enough that private insurance would handle all but the catastrophic events. The system could also be used to force states to enforce better building codes and insurance participation as the cost of entry into the cheaper-insurance system.
There's no appetite for this in Congress because people in Indiana don't want to pay for smashed summer homes at the Jersey Shore. Wake up people in Indiana, you're paying anyway. Do it right, and you'll pay less.
What about the building codes?
Here's the test for New Jersey and other states in the northeast. Are they going to let people rebuild along the beach without doing something to make the buildings stronger? They could start with requiring houses to be connected to their foundations so they don't float down the street and smash into the neighbor's. Making them a little higher would seem to make sense too.
It's not like this has never happened to the Jersey Shore. Google the "Ash Wednesday Storm" in 1962. If the pictures and film weren't grainy and mostly black and white, you think it was Sandy.
So let's see if Governor Christi steps up and sends the lobbyists who hate this kind of thing packing back to Florida where they have a compliant legislature with a perpetual case of hurricane amnesia.
Building standards that are dramatically stronger cost about 10 percent more in South Florida. That means you pay the same, but get Home Depot tile instead of Italian marble. Or, you get a 2700 square foot weekend cottage instead of 3000 square feet. In any case, the solution is easy, you adjust.
And then there's the HELP WANTED sign in the Mayor's window.
I didn't really see the sign, but clearly the Chief of Common Sense position is vacant. I lived in New York up until a couple of years ago, and always thought Mr. Bloomberg was a terrific mayor. But something has gone seriously wrong. From the amateur meteorology before the storm to the marathon fiasco in the aftermath, the flagrant fouls and unforced errors have tarnished what I'm sure is an all-out effort to do what's best for the city and its people. Hopefully they can right that ship.
When the crisis has past and the people are taken care of, the time will come to figure out how the mayor of America's greatest city was so misinformed or misguided that he told people they didn't have to evacuate and then changed his mind 24 hours later... while the storm didn't change at all. In truth, even the various governors who had the right message were late into the game. There's something broken here that needs an urgent fix.
And something about FEMA.
We haven't heard much about the idea of having states take over the functions of FEMA lately. It's like Mother Nature wanted to make it clear that it's an idiotic idea. That's not a political statement, it's just common sense.
FEMA works because it has a mountain of resources to deal with mega catastrophes. Would it somehow be more efficient to have 50 mountains instead of one? Obviously not. State and local government handle things until the scale of the event overwhelms them. Then you need the people, planning, and equipment to literally move a mountain.
That's FEMA. That's the system. And it works, when it's run right.
Fortunately, we have an extraordinarily guy running FEMA. Nobody knows emergency management better than Craig Fugate - he's from Florida so I've seen his work first hand. If anybody can move a mountain, it's Craig.
In fact, it's worth saying, in my experience - which is extensive because I'm old - the people that respond to emergency situations in emergency management, local National Weather Service offices, and the National Hurricane Center are exactly the kind of professional and dedicated people that you would want handling your disaster.
Sometimes maddening red tape and out-of-date rules get in the way, but in my experience, the people inside the government are pushing just as hard to break through the nonsense as we are pulling for the right solution. There are already signs that better answers and better systems will emerge in the long run.
More immediately, however, our full attention and resources need to be focused on the people who are stuck in the cold and dark with a strong nor'easter on the way. For them, it's going to be a very tough week.