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 $74.8 billion in economic damage. This figure has been adjusted for inflation. It was the fourth-worst storm in U.S. history.

Tragically, there were 159 hurricane-related deaths. About 8.5 million customers lost power. Over 23,000 people had to move to shelters.

Sandy caused more damage than a typical tropical storm.

While still out to sea, Sandy was a Category 3 storm. By the time it made landfall, it was downgraded to a tropical storm. The storm was 1,000 miles wide, three times that of a typical hurricane, and affected 24 states. 

Sandy closed the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for the first time in 27 years since Hurricane Gloria. The exchanges were also closed on Tuesday, the first two-day closure due to weather since 1888. 

What Made Sandy So Bad

Four factors occurred at once, making Sandy more damaging than a typical tropical storm.

  1. Although the wind speed was at a Category 1 level of 80 miles per hour, the pressure was more like a Category 3 hurricane.
  2. The storm came in from the sea at a perpendicular angle, striking the East Coast full on. It was caught between a high-pressure system to the north and low-pressure system to the south. Storms typically ride up the coast at a glancing angle, slowing as they drag across the land.
  3. Sandy's timing worsened the flooding. It hit during a high tide that was higher than normal because of a full moon.
  4. It combined an end-of-season tropical storm with an early winter-season "extratropical cyclone," turning torrential rain into snow.

Flooding and Winds Impact

Storm surges affected 24 states across the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. Surges were 12.65 feet at Kings Point, Long Island, 9.56 feet on Staten Island. Lower Manhattan's Battery Park was hit by 14-foot waves. This beat Hurricane Donna's 10-foot record set in 1960.

At least 50 square miles of New York City flooded, about 17% of its total land mass. The area contained 433,000 people, 300,000 homes, and 23,400 businesses. Flood waters reached 14 feet on Staten Island and 11 feet on Coney Island.

Sandy even reached the Great Lakes. Winds reached 69 miles per hour at Michigan City. As a result, Lake Michigan experienced 21.7-foot waves.

Grounded Transportation

New Jersey and New York transit systems were closed on Oct. 28. Buses and subway trains were moved to higher ground. Despite preparations, Sandy still severely affected transportation. 

  • All three New York area airports closed. Kennedy and LaGuardia runways were flooded, while Newark lost power. 
  • 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 subway tunnels under the rivers were flooded.
  • The Metropolitan Transportation (MTA) bus systems were shut down. Limited bus service was restored 24 hours later, with free fares.

Blizzard Impact

As the storm hit the cold front, the rain turned to snow. That brought blizzard conditions as far west as the Appalachian Mountains. Sandy dumped about a foot of snow across six states in the Central and Southern Appalachians, and almost three feet in isolated elevations. Snow and high winds knocked out power for up to two weeks in West Virginia.

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 about $170 billion and left 1,883 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 $131.3 billion and killed 89 people.

The third worst, Hurricane Maria, devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It cost $94.5 billion in damage. The death toll was 2,981. 

Sandy was worse than Hurricane Irma. A Category 5 storm, Irma cost the economy $52.5 billion. Most of the damage occurred after it hit Florida on September 10, 2017. The death toll is 97 people.

The worst storm to hit New York before Sandy was Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The Category 2 storm caused about $10.3 billion in damage, adjusted for inflation. The most severe storm that hit New York before Sandy was Hurricane Irene in 2011. This Category 1 storm caused extensive flooding, about $15.9 billion in damage, and at least 45 deaths. Hurricane Isabel in 2003, a Category 2 storm, caused $7.8 billion in damage. 

How Climate Change Made Sandy Worse

On January 9, 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 rising damage from hurricanes is caused by higher ocean temperatures.

A 2019 poll showed 57% of Americans are 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 rose about 8 to 9 inches from 1880 to 2020. 

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.

Scientific 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.