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Hurricane Sandy: Were government warnings confusing?

Though the consensus is that forecasting of Hurricane Sandy was accurate, some criticize the way the message was conveyed. The National Hurricane Center will review decisions it made relating to this storm later this month and early next year. 

By Julie SteenhuysenReuters / November 1, 2012

A warning sign about potential service changes due to Hurricane Sandy is seen at the Seventh Avenue subway station in New York, October 28, 2012.

REUTERS/Keith Bedford

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The first predictions of the monster storm that slammed into the East Coast of the United States came nearly a week before Sandy made landfall on Monday, giving state and local officials ample notice to issue warnings and make preparations for the threat.

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But in the aftermath of the storm that left a swath of destruction across 15 states and cut power to more than 8 million people, some meteorologists question the federal government's decision not to issue hurricane or tropical storm warnings for Sandy north of the Carolinas.

"I think the meteorological community as a whole did a very strong job on this storm," said Marshall Moss, vice president for forecasting at AccuWeather, a private forecasting company based in Pennsylvania.

Preparations were made, evacuations were called for, and "many, many lives were saved," Moss said in an interview on Thursday.

But AccuWeather and others are criticizing the decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center (NHC) not to issue hurricane warnings for Sandy north of North Carolina.

To some, the rationale was semantic. Because Sandy was merging with a winter storm, when it reached land it would no longer be considered a tropical storm.

So, instead of issuing hurricane warnings, Sandy was handled with a series of high wind and flood warnings through local National Weather Servoce offices.

In an advisory issued on Saturday, the hurricane center said the decision to classify Sandy as a post-tropical storm was intended to "avoid or minimize the significant confusion that could occur" if the warnings changed from tropical to non-tropical in the middle of the storm.

But AccuWeather and others worried the decision might lead to more confusion, not less. Hours before landfall, AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers urged the hurricane center to reverse its decision to not issue hurricane or tropical storm warnings, the company said in a statement.

"What we have is a hurricane becoming embedded in a winter storm. It's clearly unprecedented," Myers said. "But to refuse to issue hurricane warnings clearly can cause confusion."

Moss said not calling the storm a hurricane could lead some to underestimate the power of Sandy, one of the most expensive storms in U.S. history, with up to $20 billion in insured losses and as much as $50 billion in damages.

And he feared the hurricane center was too focused on being technically accurate, and not focused enough on communicating the severity of the risk.

"It got a little too weather weenie," said Moss, noting that the term hurricane conjures up powerful images of destruction that might not be conveyed with flood and high wind warnings.

Many were confused 

Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the hurricane center, declined to comment on AccuWeather's criticisms, but in an interview on Tuesday, John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist at the center said he doesn't "totally disagree" with AccuWeather's criticisms.

"We had a hurricane headed toward the coastline and no hurricane warnings. That confused a lot of people," he said.

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