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Assessing risk and preparing for the next storm

When I came home with a generator several years ago, my wife said, “What do need that for?” She grew up in Northern California. No hurricanes. I sighed. Just wait, I thought. Since then we’ve lost power three or four times for extended periods during winter and fall storms, the last being Hurricane Sandy.

Having grown up on the coast, the question I’ve been asking myself is: Why did I wait so long?

You never know when or where the next big storm is going to make landfall. Will it bring mostly wind? Or surge? Or both? The one thing you can count on is there will be more storms. But you can make some educated guesses pertaining to risk based on where your business is located. And you can then take steps well in advance to prepare for likely storm scenarios.

For the October issue of Soundings Trade Only, associate editor Reagan Haynes conducted a very interesting interview with Beth Leonard, BoatUS’s new technical services director and Seaworthy editor. Leonard is an experienced bluewater sailor and former management consultant.

What follows is Leonard’s answer to a question about the lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The response was too long to run in print but too important to ignore. Her assessment of risk based on windstorms vs. surge storms and the idea of a more nuanced approach to hurricane prep makes for important reading.

Beth Leonard:

Let’s hope Sandy was a once-in-a-hundred-year storm. The statistics suggest that it would be, and let’s hope that it was. But there still were some takeaways, and those have been gaining momentum across a number of storms now.

The first is that surge really matters as least as much as wind. Understanding a windstorm versus a surge storm is something that every marina needs to react to because it’s not the same.

The second is that preparations matter, but we really have to prepare for the real risk. It was heartbreaking to go up to New Jersey and New York and see these guys who had been working … almost around the clock. It wasn’t that they didn’t try to prepare. They did, and they tried to prepare based on information that has been available for a number of years on hurricane preparation. The problem is they prepared for the wrong thing. They prepared for wind, but it was primarily a surge storm. There wasn’t that much wind in Sandy.

That affects all of our thinking about how we make more nuanced planning to the risks that a specific marina is facing, that a specific region is facing for a specific storm. That’s where we’re trying to help marinas figure that out. We’re going to be working more this winter on helping build some model hurricane plans and make suggestions on how marinas want to be thinking about this.

Another takeaway was that there were some lessons from Florida marinas that could’ve reduced the damage of Sandy. One of the urges we have to fight is to prepare for the last storm. They always say that generals are fighting the last war. Boaters tend to prepare for the last storm, and yet the next storm is quite unlikely to be like the last storm. The next storm that hits New Jersey probably will have some surge, but it will be a completely different storm if it hits from a different angle and has more wind. The preparations for it will be quite different.

One of the messages we’re trying to get out to marinas is the need to be much more nuanced in their hurricane planning. You need to understand what your one-in-a-hundred risk is for wind and surge, and you need to decide what to prepare for.

You can’t prepare for every disaster. There is a cost-to-benefit tradeoff to be made. But you can try for the 95 percent level. Sandy may have been above that 95 percent level. We hope it was, but if not, we’ve all got a lot more pain in our future. But understand as best you can what your risk for a one-in-a-hundred-year storm is on the wind and surf side, and how to prepare for a storm using the best available forecast for the specific wind or surge that’s involved.

Some marinas took some really innovative steps and actually saved a lot of their boats by doing things completely out of the box. Hopefully we can help make those things be no longer out of the box and help people integrate them earlier on.

On the NOAA website, a study of storms between 1900 and 2012 shows the percentage odds of having an intense storm. In the Northeast every 22.4 years we get an intense storm, and it’s never a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. It hasn’t been in a 112-year history, but, of course, the world’s changing, so we can’t say that going forward.

That says in the Northeast they ought to be thinking more about surge than wind. That’s not to say they shouldn’t think about wind because a Cat 3 is windy. But if you are down in the Gulf Coast of Florida, where you’re going to get some sort of intense windstorm every three to five years, you better be able to deal with at least Cat 3 wind and hopefully Category 4 wind, based on these numbers. That’s something we’re trying to help marinas get their heads around.

If you’re in the Northeast, your preparation plan and how you think about storms — you’re in a different world than if you’re in the Florida Gulf Coast, which means different preparation and planning.

When I talk about a more nuanced approach to hurricane planning, first the hurricane planning has to reflect the risks in your area — the specific risks to your marina in terms of wind, surge and debris — and it also has to address the forecast.

The problem with Sandy was people didn’t believe the forecasts. We have a surveyor on our CAT team, who’s lived in New Jersey his entire life, and I talked to him a few days before Sandy. He said, “Those storms never turn left. They never turn left. It’s not going to hit us.”

And he was not alone in thinking that because they had missed that bullet so many times. There was still a limited amount they could do in Sandy, to really be fair. With four or five days’ notice they couldn’t change how high the pilings were, though one marina did. They added a steel bar to the top of the pilings and rode out the storm. They went almost to the top of the T-bar, but they rode out the storm.

There’s a limited number of things you can do with three or four days to plan. That’s where I think the need to plan for high-surge storms generically is more true than the need to plan for high-wind storms, based on the data. We have seen a trend over time toward more and more damage from surge and less and less from wind.

Part of that is better preparation for wind, but all that said, you get hit dead-on by a Category 5 and all bets are off. You don’t prepare for that. You prepare to be in the fringe of a Category 5 because 90 percent of the land area will be in the fringe, not in the eye. And if you get hit dead-on by a Category 5, it’s a very small eye. Like Hurricane Andrew, the swath of damage was 12 to 14 miles wide, and everything in that swath is wiped out.


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