Superstorm Sandy has been called a lot of names, but “surprise” was not one of them.
The storm that hit the Jersey Shore with 80-mile-per-hour winds and knocked out power to nearly 8 million homes from the Carolinas to Maine was responsible for at least 39 deaths. But it could have been much worse.
All the states affected had five days to prepare, and as the slow-moving storm moved closer, emergency management officials were able to issue warnings, declare evacuation zones, order supplies and otherwise get ready.
Without that advance warning, things could have been much worse. The 1938 Great New England Hurricane killed an estimated 800.
Among the differences between the two storms is the earlier one came as a total surprise to most people. There were no weather satellites to watch the hurricane form and provide accurate predictions about its path.
With Sandy, however, we had plenty of timely information, but that may not always be the case.
The federal government has failed to replace weather satellites that are nearing or have exceeded their life spans, with new ones not coming on board until 2017. According to three independent reviews this summer, a gap in coverage for as long as a year will be nearly impossible to avoid.
Plenty of responsible parties deserve a share of the blame. Management of the program by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been called dysfunctional.
Congress has been deadlocked over budget cutting and has failed to provide the oversight and backing needed to prevent the potential coverage gap, which the General Accounting Office now considers almost certain.
Polar satellites provided 84 percent of the data used to predict and track Hurricane Sandy. Having seen the value of these tools in action, it is unthinkable to expect to go through a year or more without them.
NOAA is working with a stopgap budget and has been ordered to submit a plan to project costs for the satellite program. It is also examining contingency plans to work with other private-sector satellites to fill in some of the gaps in coverage.
Advance warning about Sandy helped minimize loss of life and property damage. These satellites have proved their worth. We need to ensure they are adequately funded and managed, so we won’t be caught by surprise by a deadly storm for which we could have prepared.