Hurricane Sandy could become another 'Perfect Storm'

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:01 PM

Ashley Halsey III

WASHINGTON - All eyes have turned south from Washington toward a large and muscular hurricane that is on a track to menace the region and the nation’s northeastern states by the end of the weekend.

It has the makings of a rare breed of storm, a confluence of things over a densely populated swath of America that may never have seen weather arrive with quite the same force or threaten to linger so long.

The vanguard of Hurricane Sandy should arrive as rain, perhaps as early as Sunday morning. By later in the day and continuing through Tuesday, an abundance of rain will fall.

The rest of the mix will depend on Sandy’s inclination as the storm moves up the east coast over the Atlantic. The key question is where it decides to swing left into land. If it follows the same track that Hurricane Isabel took, just to the west of the Chesapeake Bay in 2003, it could marry with unusually high tides to cause unprecedented flooding.

If it doesn’t turn toward land until it reaches New York, the Washington area still will be doused with rain for hours on end.

That’s because Sandy is a bloated storm that spreads almost 300 miles from side to side, dropping up to a foot a rain across Caribbean islands while growing into a Category 2 hurricane.

While most storms hammer through within 24 hours, Sandy is on track to collide with another big storm, a northeaster, that has its own designs on New England and the Mid-Atlantic. As they wrestle each other for dominance, the hurricane will pummel the place where it has stalled.

Forecasters likened this brewing battle between two decidedly bad weather patterns to the Perfect Storm, a near legendary clash between titanic storms in the North Atlantic 21 years ago. It became infamous as the result of a book by Sebastian Junger and subsequent film of the same title.

On Thursday, The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang and other forecasters said Sandy could produce worse weather, and do it over a place inhabited by several million people rather than a handful of ships and fishing boats.

"It’s very rare to see a strong tropical system merge with such a strong winter-like trough of low pressure. Throw in a full moon, and the potential is there for a significant storm," Charlotte, N.C. meteorologist Brad Panovich posted on Facebook. "For those on the coast, don’t let the category of the storm or whether it’s ’just’ a Nor’easter dictate your response. Your personal memories of previous storms are no use in this unique situation."

Power companies, airports, rail lines and supermarkets made the usual steps to prepare for trouble.

Pepco, which provides electricity to the District of Columbia and adjacent neighborhoods in Maryland, said it was mustering power crews and working with other power companies in the South and Mid-Atlantic networks to ensure that additional help could be summoned.

"One of the primary things we’re doing right now is watching the weather forecast to see where this thing is going," said Myra Oppel, a Pepco spokeswoman. "That’s a critical thing at this point."

She said 550 internal and contracted line crews were being activated, as were the utility’s emergency operatives. She said Pepco also could make use of call centers operated by other utilities.

Pepco’s storm response has come under fire after many customers have gone without power for days or weeks after recent storms.

Dominion Power is part of an organization of utility companies stretching as far west as Texas. They have already had conversations with other companies about sending workers to whatever areas are hit hardest by the storm, said Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion spokeswoman.

With the storm’s path still fluid and uncertain, they haven’t figured out exactly who will need to go where. The number of workers needed will depend on the severity of the damage and the number of outages. After the derecho battered the Washington region in June, about 2,000 workers from companies across the country came to Dominion’s aid, she said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric has begun preparing its crews and contractors, said spokesman Robert L. Gould. In addition, the company has requested 500 workers from other utilities.

"At least based on our projections, we’re expecting that we could see a couple hundred thousand outages or more," Gould said.

The company made its request based on those projections, but they could change if the storm changes course. But the idea behind making the request Thursday is to try and get those workers in before the storm arrives, he said.

"The key, for us, is making sure the customers are really aware of what’s coming our way," Gould said. The company has begun sending messages and plans to begin making robo-calls to its 1.2 million customers beginning Friday and continuing into Saturday.

Verizon is reviewing its inventory and making sure it has the additional utility poles, cables and generators necessary to keep land-line phones working during and after the storm, said spokesman Harry Mitchell.

Amtrak is monitoring the storm, said spokeswoman Christina Leeds. If the storm makes landfall south of Washington, the main issue would be high winds throwing trees and other debris onto the tracks.

Along the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, trains are powered by overhead cables. As a result, service could be interrupted because of debris on the tracks as well as downed power cables.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Reagan National and Dulles International airports in northern Virginia, is focusing on securing loose items outside both airports.

Flights have been canceled because of storms in recent years, but the airports have remained open, said Kimberly Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the authority. Gibbs encouraged travelers to check with their airlines to find out about delays or cancellations.

Workers at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport are also going through standard storm preparations, said Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for the airport. They are inspecting vehicles and buildings, securing equipment and making sure there’s nothing on airfields.

"I wouldn’t expect the airport to close," Dean said. "Airlines may decide to alter their flight schedules, depending on conditions here as well as throughout the east coast."

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