Every year at this time, retired National Weather Service forecaster Jim Eberwine, 68, of Absecon puts an eye to the sky and waits.
Eberwine, a former weather forecaster under President Richard Nixon, isn’t looking for the usual. He is watching for the once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a storm like the one nobody remembers: the hurricane of 1821.
The storm came ashore in North Carolina and continued up the East Coast through Delaware. It passed over Cape May, Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth counties in New Jersey before striking New York City.
Coastal New Jersey was on the worst side — the northeast side — and suffered significant damage as a result of a 29-foot storm surge, he said.
The hurricane struck at low tide, but produced a 5-foot storm surge off of Delaware Bay.
Sandy’s flooding was caused by a 14.4-foot storm surge, Eberwine said.
A storm like the 1821 hurricane will happen again, he said, and will bring unique circumstances.
“It would be devastating for Cape May, Atlantic County, Ocean County,” he said.
A Category III storm could produce winds of 110 to 130 miles per hour and cripple the state, he said.
“You can’t walk in it,” he said. “You would put your life in jeopardy.”
Such a storm would produce a least an 18-foot storm surge, the forecaster said.
“JFK Airport would be under 21 feet of water. It is hard to imagine.”
Inland areas would not be spared.
Philadelphia could expect Category II conditions, and Harrisburg would have Category I conditions.
“Philadelphia would have several feet of water in their downtown area,” Eberwine said.
Most of the storms that form during the hurricane season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30, pass to the east of New Jersey thanks to the natural cover of the Middle Atlantic Ocean coast, he said.
In the hurricane season’s first months, storms are born in the Caribbean and move up through the North Carolina. They then turn inland or out over the Atlantic Ocean before reaching New Jersey, which gets wind and rain, but is spared most of the hurricane’s harmful effects, he said.
But when September rolls into October the weather turns colder and everything changes, he said.
“It’s what happens after that. We get into the late summer and early fall and there are cold outbreaks.”
High-pressure systems form over the northern Atlantic Ocean and play a steering game with hurricanes that come from the south.
“They are restricted by the high pressure,” he said. “The hurricanes can turn left or right.”
In 1991, the Perfect Storm turned west, he said. Hurricane Sandy also turned west and came ashore near Absecon.
“High pressure settles in the north Atlantic, and the storm was forced to turn left and toward New Jersey,” he said.
The storm’s mightiest portion, northeast of the eye, slammed over Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth counties.
“It brought 36 hours of water toward the mainland,” Eberwine said.
Portions of the boardwalk were lost, municipalities flooded, and barrier islands were cut into two.
But Sandy wasn’t the worst storm the shore could have, he said; a Category III storm would be much worse.
“Sandy was only a storm with 75-80 mph winds,” he said.
People living east of Route 9 should listen for an evacuation order, which could come 48 hours before the storm’s arrival, he said.
The order could come earlier if many people are vacationing at the shore. For example, if Sandy had happened in August rather than October, there would have more people to evacuate, he said.
“If you stay, what happens if you have a heart attack, if you choke or needed medication?” he said. “Nobody can get to you. When they ask you to leave, they will supply the rest of the things you need. They want to get you out of harm’s way.”
Eberwine advised anyone who is forced to evacuate to bring along a 10-day supply of daily care items.
“They used to say three days,” he said. “I think it’s more like 10 days now. They want to get you out of harm’s way.”
Many things can happen, he said.
“People are dying to get back into their homes,” he said. “They are as mad as heck but they have to realize that there is destroyed property along the coast. Gas lines are severed. There is no electricity, and there is cold water running through the streets.”
Sometimes people have to realize that their home might not be there when they return.
“I like to think if I had the money the first thing I would buy would be a house on the beach,” he said. “But the day may come when I would have to wake up and my home may not be there, or it would be heavy damaged. I would have to adapt to it.”