Hurricane Sandy: A 'Frankenstorm' strikes the US

"History is being written as an extreme weather event continues to unfold, ... one of the most extraordinary to have affected the United States." So how bad is it and what has climate change got to do with it?

Climate Central

After days of intense preparations, East Coast residents were beginning to feel the full effects of Hurricane Sandy on Monday as it brought tropical storm force winds to New York City, along with a damaging storm surge. Officials and homeowners from Delaware to Massachusetts were anxiously awaiting Monday evening’s high tide, which will occur just as the fiercest winds and waves pound the coastline, possibly causing a record storm surge in New York City, Atlantic City, and other vulnerable coastal locations.

Surf pouring over a sea wall in Ocean City, Md. as Hurricane Sandy approached the area.
Credit: Christopher Bressi/Facebook.

The storm will be felt as far inland as West Virginia and Tennessee, where blizzard warnings are in effect for higher elevations, as cold air wraps around the storm and dumps up to 3 feet of snow in some spots. By midweek, the storm could create record waves on the Great Lakes, as the storm spins its way west, and then northward into Canada.

Sandy has made an earlier turn toward the northwest than expected, which puts the central New Jersey coastline in the crosshairs for a potentially record high storm surge on Monday night. Already, the Monday morning high tide resulted in moderate-to-major coastal flooding in New Jersey and low-lying areas in New York City. Winds were gusting to 50 mph in New York before noon, and were expected to increase to 70- to 80-mph gusts by Monday night. Strong winds are forecast to spread inland and cover a massive area from Virginia to Massachusetts, eventually moving west to the Great Lakes. Even parts of Ontario, Canada will be impacted by this unusual storm.

The National Weather Service is warning of a “life threatening” storm surge threat all the way into southern New England, with 6- to 11-foot storm surge possible at The Battery in Manhattan, and in coastal Connecticut along Long Island Sound.

Computer models agreed that The Battery in Lower Manhattan, Sandy Hook, N.J., and Atlantic City will see the highest storm tides on record. That data goes back to 1893, 1932, and 1911, respectively. At The Battery, the prior record occurred during Hurricane Donna in 1960. As of noon ET, the central estimate for The Battery was slightly more than 6 feet above the Mean High Water level (mean high tide), which would top the storm tide (tide level along with the storm surge) from Hurricane Irene by more than a foot. For Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy could top Irene's storm tide by 1-to-2 feet.

In Bridgeport, Conn., the central estimate for surge was about 7.5 feet, which corresponds to a storm tide more than 5 feet above mean high tide. In Philadelphia, the surge may peak at one foot, but the tide could reach more than 2 feet above average. In Atlantic City, the central estimate for surge is about 5.5 feet, reaching about 5 feet above mean high tide. To figure out the particular risks for your local area, visit Climate Central’s interactive map

A record storm surge in New York City could flood the city’s subway system, which is the lifeblood of transportation in the region, since tunnel entrances are extraordinarily vulnerable to coastal flooding. In anticipation of the flood threat, city officials shut down the entire transit system as of 7pm on Sunday, which was only the second shutdown in history. The first shutdown occurred just 14 months ago, when Hurricane Irene lashed the city with a 4.13 foot storm surge. That resulted in a total water level (how high the water got when looking at both the tide and storm surge) peaking at 4.8 feet above average high tide. As of Monday morning, a National Weather Service computer model and a model run by the Stevens Institute of Technology was projecting a peak storm tide – the water level reached when combining storm surge plus the tide – of at least 6 feet above average high tide close to the Monday evening high tide, which occurs at 8:13 pm at The Battery.