Advances in forecasting continue to improve warning time

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EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – The next time a storm like the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 takes aim at South Jersey, the winds may howl and dangerous waters may rise with each high tide, but there will be something different about the way the storm impacts the coast.

We will be better warned.

Those are the words of NBC40 meteorologist Dan Skeldon in talking about what he calls the “five-high” storm that blew in on Ash Wednesday of 1962 and lasted for five successive high tides over three days.

“It’s happened before,” he said, “and it will happen again. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”

The difference between now and then is how modern technology – computer models, satellite imagery and modern radar – can help forecasters prepare residents and municipal officials to get ready for the next one.

“I call it a 100-year storm,” Skeldon said of the ’62 storm. “But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen again next year or the year after.”

Or, as in the case of landfall hurricanes in New Jersey, a storm may not happen again for another 100 years.

“Hurricanes get all of the publicity and respect,” he said, “because they have names that people can remember them by and talk about. But nor’easters aren't named. So unless you lived through them, you may not really remember how destructive they were.”

Nor’easters can be just as destructive as hurricanes, but in a different way, Skeldon said.

“Hurricanes need to move or else they lose their energy and die out,” he said. “With a hurricane you have high winds. They are in and out of here.”

But nor’easters are different.

“Nor’easters can stall,” he said; that is why the 1962 storm was so damaging.

“People probably knew there was a storm on the way,” he said. “But nobody knew how powerful it would become.”

The 1962 storm stalled just south of New Jersey, allowing its counterclockwise winds to push waters through the barrier islands and into the back bays. The water had nowhere to go, and the resulting flooding caused widespread devastation up and down the coast.

“Long Beach Island was breached in three spots,” he said.

Photographs from the area show a landscape that looks as though it was hit by a tsunami.

“Waves reached 30 feet along the Jersey Shore,” Skelton said.

Because there were limited forecasting tools in an age that still featured black-and-white television, many residents didn’t know to evacuate until water flooded their streets and continued rising.

But by then it was too late.

The next time a storm comes, we will be better prepared as meteorologists improve their skills and use better tools in an effort to save lives, Skeldon said.

“In the future, we are going to know sooner with more reliability,” he said. “We may ask people to evacuate to save lives the next time there is a nor’easter like the Storm of 1962.”

An example of the ability of modern forecasting occurred last year when Hurricane Irene approached along the East Coast, he said.

Modern forecasting tools enabled weathermen and emergency management coordinators to issue evacuation orders with enough time to get everybody off of the barrier islands. That wasn't possible 50 years ago.

“We are now able to predict the height of a tide to the tenth of a foot,” Skeldon said.

Irene stumped forecasters because she sped up her pace at the last minute and reached the coast before high tide, he said. As a result, flooding was not as bad as forecasters had predicted and residents had feared.

“It’s an inexact science,” he said. “But I would rather err on the side of saying it’s going to be a little worse than it turns out to be than saying it won’t be as bad as it turns out.”

The same will be true for the next storm like the storm of 1962.

“Our job is to predict the weather and warn people,” he said. “We want zero deaths.”

Forecasting tools will continue to improve as weather models become more sophisticated, he said.

“But the key is that people have to listen to us and to their emergency management coordinators,” he added.

If the public listens, he said, maybe the area will avoid the loss of life that comes with historic nor’easters.

“There will be even more damage because we have built up the coast with so much development,” Skelton said. “Hopefully, however, we can prevent the loss of life.”

Skeldon’s first step in warning residents will come with the annual summer outlook he issues in April.

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