Sunday, November 04, 2012

Musings From An Airplane On A Long Flight Home

Despite being officially on vacation the past week I remained plugged in to Sandy's hammering of the Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Metro New York. Without stating the obvious and lingering over the details of how massive the damage is, how extensive the impact is our region, I wanted to cover this from a couple of different vantage points with thoughts that came into my mind while in the Caribbean. Kinda like Kevin's thoughts from Friday, everything here is my opinion and take. Think of it as a "What Grinds My Gears" moment...being away for a week and not typing much more than random tweets and responding to a few emails means a lot of pent up energy to write...and what better activity to do at 35,000 feet than to fire off some opinion on your iPad.

First, the whole warning/no warning drama. Storms like Sandy are unusual in that it transitioned to a non tropical state just before coming ashore. Technically, the National Hurricane Center was not wrong for not issuing a tropical storm nor hurricane warning for the region...the storm was not tropical at landfall and satellite data can back that up pretty clearly...the storm transitioned from tropical to non tropical in the hours before landfall. However, it doesn't mean that tropical style (read: hurricane) warnings shouldn't have been issued or that a need for reform of the warning process is needed in the future. It boggles my mind that warnings for hurricane force winds can't have consistent wording from the NWS as those from the Hurricane Center and that the NHC couldn't have control over the issuing of those warnings in coordination with local NWS offices. At present, the harshest warnings for inland areas for nontropical systems are High Wind Warnings...and that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Such warnings can be used with winds sustained at lower speeds than hurricanes or even stronger tropical storms. There needs to be a better way to handle the whole warning system if a storm transitions from tropical to non tropical or is forecast to do so. Perhaps maintain the tropical warnings through the storm's duration even if it transitions over...have "dual" warnings that cover the tropical and non tropical with the same type of warnings. It is clear some reform and tweaking is needed. That said, the NHC did a good job in forecasting the storm five days out (outside of that is a different story but they are not judged completely on that) and credit for that should be noted.

Second, we spoke of this point last year with Irene and mentioned it briefly in discussions of Isaac. There needs to be a holistic discussion on tropical cyclones and on how we categorize them, rank them, and judge them. We were consistent in talking about how it was not a good idea to fixate on the title of the storm because, due to its large size, it would generate a lot of impact. Whether a storm is a hurricane, a tropical storm, or a non tropical entity is immaterial. Large storms geographically are going to cause a lot of impact a large distance from the center. Wind speed is just one factor...track, size, pressure relationship and gradient are other factors that Saffir-Simpson fail to capture. It's time to chuck Saffir completely from our discussion and our TV talking points and find a replacement scale that better measures impact. Also, focusing on whether it is a hurricane or tropical storm for a title is immaterial...I have said for a while it is time to consider a conversation about just calling them tropical cyclones or tropical storms regardless of wind intensity. A 70 mph tropical storm can cause more widespread impact than a small 85 mph hurricane. We do not have to rely on naming titling that goes back to the 17th Century and a hurricane classification scale that is decades old and is horrendous at measuring scope of storm.

It was amazing to hear about the scope and scale of damage in the proceeding days through social media, watching CNN, BBC, and limited online news reading. The level of power outages was unprecedented and for the fourth time in fifteen months a major storm knocked out power to many...and it speaks to the need for infrastructure reform. Given millions were without power, the task to plug everyone back in is a tremendous and mighty undertaking. What makes that task ever more daunting is the amount of overhead electric in the Northeast. Part of our rebuilding conversation, I hope, focuses in the long term development of more underground wiring. Yes, it's costly and such work would run in the billions and probably take years. However, as upgrades are done to existing electric systems in neighborhoods, there should be some look by PECO, PPL, and other electric companies into the feasibility of this for the most outage-prone areas. While it may not be a cure all, it may limit some power outages in the future for areas that lose power at the drop of a hat. Investments into our infrastructure by those charged to provide and deliver our power can only help limit their costs in their future in rebuilding and repairing damaged wires. Given the increased propensity to have significant weather events of late, it is critical to have the infrastructure in place that can handle stronger storms and significant weather, so that our repair and restoration time when the next billion dollar storm comes along can be mitigated so we can get aid to those who need it as quick as possible...and that we're not merely putting band aids on an aging system.