Sandy 101: Explaining the impact

Looking back one year later at the superstorm's unprecedented toll on the northeastern US

Residents of Staten Island, N.Y., are still coping with the havoc wrought by Sandy.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

As the deadliest storm to strike the northeastern U.S. in four decades, Superstorm Sandy accounted for $65 billion in damage across 24 states, making it the second-costliest storm in U.S. history.

The largest storm on record, it killed nearly 300 people in seven countries.

A report from the National Hurricane Center (PDF) earlier this year explained how the extraordinarily large storm affected a massive area of the country, from Florida to Maine — though the worst impact, by far, took place in New York and New Jersey.

Here is a look at Sandy’s costs, with some historical perspective:

How high was the human toll?

Direct U.S. deaths from the devastating storm — fatalities attributable to storm surge, rough seas and floods — reached 72, the most for the region since Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Indirect deaths, from hypothermia during power outages and accidents during cleanup efforts, totaled 87.

According to The New York Times, 43 people perished in New York City, with 37 dead in New Jersey, 14 in Long Island, seven in the northern New York suburbs and five in Connecticut.

For comparison, the deadliest storm in U.S. history killed about 10,000 people in 1900 near Galveston, Texas.

What kind of storm was Sandy?

The massive storm changed speed and strength many times.

Sandy began as a tropical wave off the coast of West Africa on Oct. 11, 2012, and created a large area of thunderstorms in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. By Oct. 18, it reached the Caribbean and gathered strength on Oct. 24.

When it made landfall in Jamaica, Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane (on the Saffir-Simpson scale). It escalated to a Category 3 while passing through Cuba on Oct. 25 before going back down to Category 1 over the Bahamas.

Wind speeds briefly dipped below hurricane levels, but the storm grew wider and more intense during its approach toward the U.S. on Oct. 27. It reached a secondary peak intensity as a hurricane before taking a northwestward turn toward the mid-Atlantic U.S.

The storm, in addition to its extreme size, resulted in the lowest sea-level pressure ever recorded north of North Carolina, at 945 millibars.

It was technically downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall just northeast of Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. By then, the diameter of the storm, with its gale-force winds, exceeded 1,000 miles. The power of the seas smashing into the coastline was catastrophic, as peak winds reached 115 mph.

At nearly 14 feet, the height of the waves crashing into southern Manhattan surpassed the previous record, set by Hurricane Donna half a century earlier.

“The effects of Sandy across the United States were enhanced by the fall full-moon period, in which some of the highest astronomical tides of the year occurred,” according to the NHC report.

It continued, “Whole communities were inundated by water and sand, houses were washed from their foundations, boardwalks were dismantled or destroyed, cars were tossed about, and boats were pushed well inland from the coast.”

Sandy dissipated by Oct. 31, and Halloween lent the term “Frankenstorm” to the monstrous system. 

Whole communities were inundated by water and sand, houses were washed from their foundations, boardwalks were dismantled or destroyed.

How costly was Sandy?

Well over half a million homes were damaged, and 8 million lost power as high winds knocked down trees and electric lines.

Sandy is the second-most-damaging storm in U.S. history, with most estimates placing the cost at more than $65 billion, in addition to $3 billion in other countries.

Adjusted to 2012 dollars, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused $128 billion (PDF) in damage.

Nine of 10 of the most devastating hurricanes, in terms of estimated property damage, occurred from 2001 to 2010. After adjusting for inflation, six of the 10 most damaging hurricanes are from that decade. Sandy still ranks second.

Since built-up areas of the country generally have larger populations and more valuable infrastructure than in the past, a more accurate comparison with previous storms should take into account not just inflation but also demographics and wealth normalization.

By those criteria, Sandy ranks as the fifth most destructive storm, surpassed by three Gulf Coast hurricanes that occurred in the early 20th century.

What did Sandy destroy?

Coastal areas in the New York metro region were devastated
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

New York City estimated costs in the five boroughs at $19 billion, including private, public and indirect expenses. About $5 billion was incurred by agencies for health and housing. And the area’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority suffered another $5 billion due to flooding in eight subway tunnels.

Damage to subway lines — closed for weeks in some places — was the worst in the system’s 108-year history, and the New York Stock Exchange — shut for two days — experienced its longest weather closure since 1888.

East River inundations in lower Manhattan were unprecedented, and the neighborhoods of Red Hook in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens saw severe storm damage.

Media reports referred to the Staten Island areas of Midland, New Dorp and Oakland Beach as ground zero.

Because of shortages of crude oil, gas rationing in New York City lasted 15 days. Repairs to the power, gas, water and sewer lines in New Jersey alone are estimated to total more than $4 billion.

Despite legislative delays in approving disaster relief, some media outlets referred to the storm as the October surprise of the 2012 presidential election, since recovery efforts included politically popular cooperation between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

On Jan. 29, 2013, Obama signed into law a bill providing $50 billion in emergency funds, which had been held up for months by partisan wrangling in Congress.

The first $5 billion in federal aid began to be released in February.

The top recipient of private charitable donations for Sandy, the American Red Cross, raised more than $300 million after the storm. 

Cimate change and superstorms

Meteorologists and other scientists have engaged in a long-running debate about whether an individual storm’s high intensity can directly be blamed on humans’ impact on nature.

One recent report (PDF) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argued that “attribution of single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change is challenging.”

But scholars agree the environment is becoming warmer and moister, and a hotter atmosphere can hold more water, which adds force and volume to storms.

The width of Sandy was more than double that of hurricanes Irene and Isaac combined.

In addition, Sandy’s path from the south was blocked by a high-pressure system to the north. An early wintry front to the west had stalled, combining with Sandy to create far more powerful snowy, rainy and windy conditions.

Moreover, higher tides exacerbated the magnitude of its storm surge.

The term “superstorm” denotes the mix of unusual characteristics that forecasters had warned would create an exceptionally dangerous late-season hurricane capable of ravaging the Eastern Seaboard.

Because of the severity of last year's storm, the World Meteorological Organization retired the name Sandy and will not use it again for a North Atlantic storm.

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