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Predicting what’s next for Sandy

Tonight's developments will decide how swiftly city and region will recover from storm

Hudson River swells, Monday morning. Photo: Allison Maier

As Hurricane Sandy barrels down on the coast tonight, the city will soon have a better idea of the damage it will have to deal with in the days to come.

The biggest unknown is the extent to which water coming in during high tide in the next several hours could affect the city’s subway system. Estimates now predict surges on the higher end of those initially forecast — around 11 or 12 feet, though possibly up to 14 feet, said Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and Columbia University professor. He notes that high tides tend to bring in surges about five feet above low tide levels whether or not a hurricane is in the picture.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has boarded up subway stations and prepped its pumps, but Sobel points out that New York has never had to deal with anything like Sandy before. In addition to the effect flooding could have on tunnels themselves, it also has the potential to fry or corrode equipment, which could shut down transportation for a long time, Sobel said.

The city and MTA will have a better sense of what they are dealing with by later tonight, since high tides coming in the next few hours are expected to bring the biggest surge, Sobel said.

High winds could have an effect on New York as well — more so than rain, which has been surprisingly sparse in the city, Sobel said. Tonight could bring hurricane-strength winds of 80 miles an hour. Power lines could be downed in the suburbs, he said, but most lines in the city are underground and more likely to be protected, unless they are in areas of flooding.

Though the winds aren’t enough to blow down buildings or send people flying, they could rip siding from older buildings or fly other objects into the air, Sobel said. For those reasons, people should stay inside tonight.

“If people are smart, the wind itself won’t be dangerous,” he said.

James Booth, a post-doctorate researcher with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University, admits the “science nerd” in him is most interested to see what happens with the storm in the days to come. He and his fellow scientists note that projections of Sandy’s path over the past several days have been remarkably accurate.

“It’s been really amazing,” Sobel said.

More than a week ago, one European model very closely predicted Sandy’s course. There was some luck involved, since models can’t reliably place the location of a hurricane that far out, according to John Dwyer, a PhD student researching weather patterns at Columbia. However, he wrote in an e-mail, “knowing that this was a possibility so far in advance has certainly helped emergency planners and the National Weather Service.”

It has also helped get the word out to the public, Sobel said. He notes that this kind of modeling was not possible 10 years ago.