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    Lessons Learned from Sandy: National Hurricane Center Report Highlights Issue of Whether “Hurricane” Warnings and Definitions Should Be Modified

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    In a report issued last week analyzing Superstorm Sandy, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) reviewed why Sandy was downgraded from hurricane status to a post-tropical cyclone before it made landfall in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the northeast, and made recommendations for changes in definitions and procedures going forward.  As to Sandy, the NHS report noted that sustained hurricane force winds and storm surge were felt on shore while Sandy was still a hurricane offshore, and that additional sustained hurricane-force winds “almost certainly occurred in New Jersey, although these are believed to have occurred exclusively after Sandy’s extratropical transition.”  The report also noted that much of the damage was attributable to storm surge, highlighting the importance of that as a factor in warnings going forward.

    The classification of Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone rather than a hurricane when it made landfall in the northeast was significant to property owners and their insurers whose policies included, among other potentially pertinent provisions, a higher “hurricane deductible.”  In the immediate aftermath of Sandy and its downgrading to a post-tropical cyclone right before it hit landfall in the northeast, the insurance departments and governors of a number of states declared that hurricane deductibles should not apply to Sandy-related insurance claims, at least under homeowners policies. (See our article in our prior blog).  The NHC report, with its reference to hurricane force winds in some of those states, is likely to contribute to an ongoing debate as to the propriety of those directives and their application to certain policies, particularly those referencing hurricane force winds and storm surge as a trigger for the application of hurricane deductibles.

    The NHC report further noted that the National Weather Service (NWS) is exploring proposals that would result in changes to the hurricane warning definition so that it would be “broadened to apply to systems after their tropical cyclone stage has ended, thus allowing hurricane or tropical storm watches and warnings to remain in effect for post-tropical cyclones.”  The report also proposed the introduction of storm surge warnings, stating that “with the implementation of a storm surge warning, the NWS will warn explicitly for the phenomenon that presents the greatest weather-related threat for a massive loss of life in a single day.”  Changes in NWS warnings and definitions, and the recognition of the critical role of storm surge, is also likely to fuel the debate as to whether policy wordings, particularly the definitions triggering the application of higher “hurricane deductibles,” should be modified.

    The NHC report also noted that preliminary U.S. damage estimates are near $50 billion, making Sandy the second-costliest cyclone to hit the United States since 1900.  The report stated that at least 147 deaths across the Atlantic basin, including the Caribbean, were attributed to the Sandy, with 72 of those fatalities in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States, according to the report.  At least 650,000 houses were either damaged or destroyed and 8.5 million people were left without power.

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