Hurricane Sandy Facts, Damage and Economic Impact

How Bad Was Hurricane Sandy?

••• Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey on October 29, 2012. It did $70.2 billion in economic damage. This figure has been adjusted for inflation. It was the fourth-worst storm in U.S. history. It had been a Category 3 storm. But by the time it made landfall, it was downgraded to a tropical storm.

The storm damaged or destroyed at least 650,000 homes, and 8 million customers lost power. Storm surges were massive: 8 1/2 feet higher than normal at Sandy Hook, New Jersey and 12 1/2 feet at Kings Point, Long Island. 

Sandy closed the New York Stock Exchange for the first time in 27 years since Hurricane Gloria. Even the electronic exchanges, based in New Jersey, were closed so as not to endanger the workers there. The exchanges were also closed on Tuesday, the first two-day closure due to weather since 1888. 

On January 10, 2018, New York City sued the major oil companies for their role in damages brought by Hurricane Sandy. It seeks to compensate the city for its costs related to climate change. It claims the companies covered-up the role their product had on global warming. The increased damage from hurricanes is one consequence of higher ocean temperatures.

What Made Sandy So Bad

Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard just in time for Halloween 2012. This monster was dubbed Frankenstorm by the National Weather Service. It combined an end-of-season Category 1 hurricane with a cold front and a second storm, turning torrential rain into snow. Even before hitting land, Sandy was the largest tropical storm in the Atlantic. It reached 900 miles in diameter. This system, combined with the 150-mph winds of the jet stream, pushed the monster north toward Pennsylvania and New York State.

The storm was pushed into the United States by a third weather pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation. As it hit shore, it picked up more moisture from the Gulf Stream. To make matters even worse, Sandy made landfall just in time for the full moon. The timing created storm surges that were higher than normal.

Sandy was a once-in-a-lifetime storm event, putting 50 million people at risk. Tragically, 72 people died from the hurricane as the direct cause. Another 87 deaths occurred from hypothermia due to power outages, carbon monoxide, and accidents during cleanup.

Flooding and Winds Impact

The storm surge hit a 600-mile stretch of the Eastern Seaboard. Lower Manhattan's Battery Park was hit by 14-foot waves. This beat Hurricane Donna's 10.02-foot record set in September 1960. More than 80% of Atlantic City was underwater. Some of the Boardwalk was swept away.

All five Great Lakes were warned of gale force winds as the storm headed their way on Tuesday. Waves 20 to 25 feet are possible on the south side of Lake Michigan.

Winds reached a high of 80 mph when Sandy made landfall. That's when the hurricane was downgraded to a post-tropical storm. Winds were felt as far west as the Great Lakes and into Canada.

Power Outages

Sandy hit power stations hard. More than 8 million people were without power, as stations flooded and trees fell on power lines.

Con Ed said it received the worst damage to its system ever, leaving 780,000 people without power. This included many hospitals. NYU Langone and Coney Island were evacuated. Lower Manhattan was completely dark. Officials said full power might not be returned for a week, as they were still assessing the damage. Repairmen were literally pumping water out of the electrical tunnels.

New York State requested 4,000 utility workers from as far away as California. At least 90% of Long Island was without power, affecting 800,000 people.

Grounded Transportation

Since Sandy hit a major travel hub, it severely affected transportation. 

  • More than 15,000 flights into New York and other East Coast airports were canceled. As of the Tuesday following the storm, all three New York airports were closed.
  • New York subways were flooded with seawater and remained closed as of Tuesday morning. This was the worst damage in its 108-year history. All trains had been moved to yards and were not damaged.
  • MTA bus systems were shut down. Limited bus service was restored Tuesday afternoon. Service was 100% reactivated by the Wednesday following the storm.
  • AMTRAK was closed.
  • Bridges and roadways were closed in Manhattan. East River bridges were open as of Tuesday. Cab drivers were allowed to pick up more than one passenger.

Blizzard Impact

As the storm hit the cold front, the rain turned to snow. That brought blizzard conditions and dropped two to three feet of snow on West Virginia. Some areas of southwestern Virginia and Kentucky received two feet of snow. The Appalachians in North Carolina and Tennessee received up to 18 inches. (Source: "Sandy May Push Record Surge Into Manhattan," Bloomberg, October 29, 2012. CNBC broadcast.)

Property Damage

Sandy caused more than 20 fires in the greater New York area. The largest was a six-alarm fire in Queens. More than 80 homes were destroyed despite the efforts of more than 200 firefighters who braved the hurricane to put out the fire. 

Impact on Gas and Oil Prices

Gas price futures dropped after the storm, despite the closure of some refineries. Oil prices initially fell, since there was temporarily less demand from closed refineries. 

How Sandy Compares to Other Big Storms

The worst hurricane in U.S. history was Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm. It cost the economy between $160 billion and $250 billion. It left 1,836 people dead. Most of Katrina's damage was due to flooding in New Orleans. 

The second most damaging was Hurricane Harvey. This Category 4 storm hit Texas on August 25, 2017. It cost $125 billion and killed 70 people.

The third worst, Hurricane Maria, devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It cost $90 billion in damage. The death toll was 2,975. In May 2018, researchers estimated that 4,645 died after the storm knocked out electricity and transportation.

Sandy was worse than Hurricane Irma. A Category 5 storm, Irma cost the economy $50 billion. Most of the damage occurred after it hit Florida on September 10, 2017. The unofficial death toll is 101 people.

The worst storm to hit New York before Sandy was Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The Category 2 storm caused $6.9 billion in damage. The most recent storm that hit New York before Sandy was Hurricane Isabel in 2003. This Category 2 storm caused $7.4 billion in damage. 

How Climate Change Made Sandy Worse

2017 poll showed that 55% of Americans believe that climate change makes hurricanes worse. As a result, 48% reported being afraid of climate change. 

Their fear is based in fact. Global warming has increased the earth's temperature by 1.2. degrees Celsius since 1880. That’s faster than at any other time in the Earth’s history. Warmer air holds more of the moisture that feeds hurricanes.

Flooding and storm surges near coastal cities are made worse by rising sea levels. The average global sea level has risen 8.9 inches between 1880 and 2015. 

Third, climate change allows hurricanes to remain in place longer. Since 1949, they’ve slowed by 10%. Global warming stalls weather patterns that are driven by the jet stream. That’s a river of wind high in the atmosphere that races from west to east at speeds up to 275 miles an hour. It undulates north and south as it goes. The jet stream is created by temperature contrasts between the Arctic and temperate zones. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. That slows down the jet stream and allows storms to hover.

M.I.T. models predict that by 2035, there will be more hurricanes in general. Of these, 11% will be of the Category 3, 4, and 5 classes. It predicted 32 super-extreme storms with winds above 190 miles per hour. Because of their unbridled strength, scientists may reclassify these storms into a new category: Category 6.