Sandy’s surges top Jersey’s worst storms

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For the past several years, longtime Absecon meteorologist, hurricane and nor’easter specialist Jim Eberwine, 63, has preached about the horrors of a storm he wished he would never see, but knew someday would come.

Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey’s Katrina, roared across Atlantic City at 6:24 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29. It affected the lives of nearly 50 million people along the East Coast, millions of them in New Jersey and New York.

Eberwine’s storm had come.

“I expect at least $50 billion in damages when all is said and done,” said Eberwine, who began his career forecasting the weather as the personal meteorologist for President Richard Nixon. He worked 43 years as a meteorologist, including 37 with the U.S. Weather Service’s Mount Holly Forecast Office. “We’ve never had a storm make a perpendicular strike in New Jersey.”

Eberwine spent the past several years warning emergency management coordinators across the state about the dangers of a Category 1 hurricane striking Atlantic City or anywhere else along the New Jersey coast at high tide during a full moon.

It was a worse-case scenario for the resort city.

Like a pair of dice thrown at a craps table, it wasn’t a matter of if it would happen, but when Mother Nature would put down a pair of snake eyes.

Hurricane Sandy was that storm.

Sandy blasted South Jersey with 79-mph wind gusts and dropped more than 10 inches of rain across portions of Cape May County. Its five-foot storm surge combined with the Oct. 29 full moon to give birth to a monster storm along the coast. Record high tides rolled across the barrier islands, flooding the first floors of homes and businesses in its path with water, sand and debris.

In low-lying areas up and down the coast, Sandy bullied some buildings off their foundations, snapped shark-like bites out of others and swept weaker homes away, lost forever except in memories and photographs.

Residents who failed to evacuate huddled together on the second floor of their homes and watched as the bay met the sea and the ground disappeared beneath a frothing gray body of unrelenting surf that kept coming for hours.

Officials closed some of the barrier islands for days while residents waited to return to find out what was left of their homes and start picking up the pieces.

Sandy left in her wake historic storm surge marks, reaching 10.3 feet above the mean lower low water mark, the gauge meteorologists use to judge storm tides. Sandy’s totals surpassed those of storms that are forever etched in the memory of longtime coastal residents: December 1992 (9.0), the Sept. 14 Hurricane of 1944 (8.8); Hurricane Gloria in 1985 (8.6); the Perfect Storm of Oct. 31, 1991 (8.5); and the horrific March 6 storm of 1962 (8.4), according to information provided by the National Weather Service.

Sandy’s storm surge could have approached 12 feet had it not sped up in the few hours leading up to landfall, Eberwine said. As bad as it was, Sandy could have produced tides two feet higher.
Power lines, underground transformers, cars and buildings along the barrier islands were no match for its might.

Waves smashed through the boardwalk in Atlantic City, carrying wood blocks away. Boats came to rest hundreds of feet away from where they had been docked. On the mainland, bayside waters seemed to rise more quickly than a fast walker’s pace, climbing higher than many could imagine.

On-air weather forecasting professionals shook their heads in disbelief at a storm that first appeared on 15-day outlooks in mid-month. While online blogs such as kept warning of a monster storm, everyone hoped it would go out to sea. People couldn’t believe that it could happen.

Then it did.

Two days short of Halloween, a hurricane that had formed days earlier in the Caribbean climbed up the East Coast. Like a football running back, it faked toward the right end and out to sea before turning up the middle, dropping its head and taking aim at South Jersey.

“We first started watching it around Oct. 21,” Eberwine said. “There was a chance it could go out to sea. But with every new model, it became more apparent Sandy was going to strike New Jersey.”
By Oct. 23, a New Jersey landfall was becoming more likely, he said, noting, “Friday was Katrina Day.”

On Friday, Oct. 26 emergency management coordinators from across the state met with their communities and planned for the evacuations that would begin on Sunday. Waiting one more day to make a decision would have been too late, Eberwine said.

Sandy was a perplexing storm, Eberwine said.

“Normally, to predict where a hurricane is going to go, you just have to follow the eye,” he said. “But with Sandy, several things had to happen.”

Almost in unison, a blocking pattern set up over the North Atlantic, keeping Sandy from turning east, where hurricanes like to go. At the same time, a cold front emerged from the west and captured Sandy, pulling it back toward the coast.

Every condition had to mix together just right, Eberwine said.

Sandy combined with the strong cold front to create a monster storm system that stretched its menacing grip 1,500 miles from Maine to North Carolina and inland as far as the Great Lakes and Southern Canada.

At the same time that Sandy sent 69-degree temperatures to those living near the ski resorts of Vermont, it pulled down an arctic freeze that was cold enough to produce several inches of heavy, wet snow in the mountains of West Virginia and North Carolina.

A normally free-speaking Gov. Chris Christie was visibly shaken as he toured the state’s weather war zones, but vowed the state would rebuild.
Eberwine, however, worries that the worst may not be over.

“Hurricane Sandy washed away all of the dunes,” he said. “That provides our first line of defense. Without the dunes in place to protect the barrier islands, a minor nor’easter becomes a moderate one, and a moderate one becomes a major one.”

Unfortunately, this area is just entering the nor’easter season and the dunes won’t be repaired until next year, he said.


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