How Hurricane Sandy Was Different Than Other Historic Storms

Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard on October 29, 2012, flattening and flooding whole communities from Delaware to New York City. Its lingering effects were felt as far west as Cleveland, Ohio and as far north as Nova Scotia.

Sandy was monstrous in size, covering many hundreds of square miles, much like Hurricane Katrina, which filled the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. The major threat from both hurricanes was storm surge, the accumulation of displaced water rushing onshore. Yet several factors distinguish Sandy from other superstorms.

Meteorological Factors Hurricane Sandy

Hurricanes normally lose power as they crawl north over cooler Atlantic waters. Sandy was different, hugging the warmer coastal waters of the Eastern Seaboard. As it crept north, the hurricane was aided by the northern jet stream winds. A unique weather pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation stopped the hurricane from drifting east and dissipating. Because of these factors, Sandy hooked sharply left to make a perpendicular strike on the coast in what amounted to a head-on collision with New York and New Jersey.

Shallow Waters

New York and New Jersey have notoriously shallow waters. Though Sandy was never more than a Category 2 and was barely a hurricane when it struck, it carried enormous amounts of rain. Shallow rivers, ports and coastlines quickly flooded, filling subway tunnels near New York’s Battery Park, shorting out underground electrical systems and dousing the lights of lower Manhattan and its boroughs. Low-lying beach communities like Breezy Point, the Rockaways and Atlantic City, Staten Island and the New Jersey peninsula that holds Cape May and Sea Bright suffered tremendous damage.

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Sandy made landfall during a full moon and high tide, when waters are highest during normal conditions. Combined with heavy, sustained rainfall from the slow-moving system, the storm surge delivered peak devastation as it hovered onshore. Winds were never the danger, as this hurricane never topped 85 mph over land. The danger was massive flooding.

Sandy was also a nor’easter. The storm occurred on October 29, very late in North America’s hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30. Rain became ice and snow, blanketing the Appalachians and Alleghenies, picking up force from the infamous “lake effect” the Great Lakes, downing trees and cutting power near cities from Cleveland to Chicago.

Landfall Location

Finally, Sandy’s economic impact was worse than any similar superstorm on record because of where it hit and not its strength. Sandy struck the heart of the Eastern Seaboard, the most densely populated area of the United States, and the very place least prepared for its devastating effects. Estimates of storm damage are still coming in, and Congress recently approved a federal aid package of close to $60 billion.

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