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You become resilient

Dr. Alan Blumberg


Dr. Alan Blumberg is a resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, and is professor of Ocean Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. In his job, he studies hurricanes, storm surges, and climate change. He looks at how these affect people who live on coastlines, and he also studies methods of building resilience for future storms. Dr. Blumberg is the Director of the Davidson Laboratory at Stevens, and he is also the founder of NYHOPS, a system designed to alert the public about upcoming storm surges. In his narrative, he discusses his research as it relates to Hurricane Sandy and the development of weathering technologies.

What do you like most about living and teaching in Hoboken?

What I like most is the very smart people, students and faculty, that are here, and that we are on the waterfront. So what I teach and talk about, you can see from my office window.

Have you been affected by any previous natural disasters, like Hurricane Irene?

I have been affected by several hurricanes and their affect on people: Irene, Sandy, Katrina…a whole number of them.

How have they been different from Hurricane Sandy?

They manifested themselves in different ways. Irene, for example, did not have a big storm surge, so there was not a lot of flooding from the ocean. But, there was a lot of flooding from rainfall. When Hurricane Irene was coming, most people were looking out to the ocean to see this big storm surge. I kept saying, why don’t you turn around?  Because the water which floods will come from behind you, from the landslide, and that’s what happened. Hurricane Irene came at low tide in New York Harbor. Hurricane Sandy came at high tide, so there’s an extra five feet of water, just because the tide was going up instead of down. Sandy was a very large event, the most water we have ever had in New York Harbor. That’s not to say it won’t happen again, it probably will happen again. Climate is changing, sea level is rising, so I say, look out and be prepared.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, how did you prepare?

As part of my profession, we forecast storm surges, so we were looking a week ahead of time to see where Sandy was, as a hurricane, and how it would move up the coast of New Jersey. As it came closer, and closer, we realized that it really was going to come to our area. I had a lot of media people calling me, and I made plans to be on the Weather Channel, so I decided just before Sandy hit New Jersey, that I was going to leave Hoboken, and I went to an area that was not going to lose power, so I could be on television all the time.

Were you generally concerned about the hurricane?

I was very concerned. A lot of my concern was people that weren’t paying attention to all of my announcements, and everything that was going on in this world. My biggest failure was in communicating what we knew was going to happen. At the south end of Hoboken, there’s a PATH and New Jersey Transit terminal, with hundreds of yellow taxis sitting in that area. Someone decided they better move away from the waterfront, so all the taxis moved somewhere else. They moved from an area that had about three feet of water coming in, to an area that had nine feet of water coming in. All of those moved taxis were ruined. I knew that the water was going to be coming in there, and somehow I couldn’t communicate that knowledge, which hopefully will not happen again.

How do you think you can remedy that for next time?

One way is to go out into the public, and make known that we are very good at forecasting storm surges and flooding. The more we get out into the community, the better, with the mayor, and the governor’s office, with Google Crisis and that’s what we’re trying to do now.

Why do you think people doubt the government’s weather forecasts?

People who live in the United States always have doubt about their government. Because they don’t understand the message that comes from our government, it often comes very clouded in politics. It’s not clear. The people who I spoke to, who didn’t evacuate during Sandy, didn’t pay attention, sort of seemed like they weren’t confident in what they were hearing. It didn’t make any difference that it was correct; the weatherman is not a moron, they are very good. They represent the government, so they tell you a story in a way that doesn’t scare you, but alarms you. Sometimes you need to scare someone a little to get them to react.

You mentioned forecasting storm surges. Do you think that is a different kind of forecasting, than the general weather that you may see on the Weather Channel?

They are complementary. In order to forecast how much water is going to come in to your city, you have to know what the wind is going to do. If the hurricane would go out to sea, then we would have no storm surge. The better the wind forecast, the better we can forecast storm surges; they are intimately related.

Tell me about your experience as the hurricane was taking place.

When I left Hoboken and went to West Chester, NY. I went to my girlfriend’s house, because I knew she was going to have power. She was running around getting food and provisions, and it was fun. I was working with The Weather Channel, with Jim Cantori, reporting what was going on.

I was worried about people who were poor and living in the low-laying areas of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken. They couldn’t react when Sandy hit, and they didn’t really know how bad it was to be, but it was nine feet of water coming into town. We couldn’t get the word out to them. I’ve heard that people ask their friends, when an event is coming, hey, what are you thinking? If they don’t have trusted friends, then on whom do they rely? The television stations, like CNN, are not good places to go if you want objective information. We’ve got to fix that somehow.

How have you gone through the process of rebuilding?

Well, my condo association has taken care of the details of the building flooding and elevator repair. Since the storm, I’ve been working to figure out ways to forecast storm surge, better and how to communicate better with the public. We want to become resilient. Here comes the storm, deal with it, and get on with your life. So, you have to figure out a way to deal with it that’s good for you, and makes you better at the end of it. As opposed to, barely surviving.

What are your views of the government’s response to the storm?

Governments are very slow to act, and I think they have not done a good job. There has been a lot of important talking and planning, but if we had a Hurricane Sandy tomorrow, the same thing would happen, as happened the first time, so nothing has changed in a significant way. The houses that are elevated on the New Jersey shore, they won’t be devastated because they have been elevated, but the houses behind them will. We kind of pushed the problem around a little.

Do you think the Federal Government has worked well with the Governor’s office for lasting solutions?

Not yet. A lot of talk; I don’t see it. I know that Pres Obama, and his administration have given a lot of money to resiliency in New York and New Jersey, and nothing has happened. The government is just starting to think about how to spend the money, but it’s been two and a half years.

What is your opinion of FEMA’s response to the hurricane?

FEMA is a big bureaucratic organization. They are well-intended people, but sometimes their mission gets too clouded in politics. They have a lot to do, and they don’t have the best tools available in order to get it done. I really think they should rely a lot more on universities to get their work accomplished. They can spread it around a bit, and have smarter tools, and have equally smart people working on it. They have to get a job done, so they use the best tools available to get the job done, but not necessarily the best tools. It’s a big difference.

Did you see a lot of local aid, within Hoboken?

I saw wonderful people coming together as the water receded, free cookouts all along the streets. The mayor was talking about bringing people together; I had several meals that were donated by different shelters, so it was wonderful, how the community came together to help everybody out.

Do you think the community is closer as a result?

I do. That was a real benefit of what happened. People know each other now that didn’t know each other before. They realize if something like that happens to me, maybe someone will be there to help me out. That’s a test of our constitution.

What do you think are lessons for the future that people should learn from Hurricane Sandy?

Be prepared, for one, by far. Talk to your friends about what’s going to happen. Find trusted sources, maybe your mayor, or your local, lower level government, the better, your councilperson, or your mayor. Don’t go to the governor, they are too broad. The lower you can go the better.

Can you tell us about the NYHOPS and the storm surge warning system?

We have been very fortunate at Stevens to have long-term funding for our research. One of the aspects of our research is to understand how the water moves and mixes in the urban environment, so we study urban oceanography. We study the interaction between water and land, and land and water. Both have big impacts.

NYHOPS (www.stevens.edu/nyhops/) is a forecast system that has data coming in from many spots around the area. Data is the water temperature and salinity, water levels, currents; the data comes in real time, we put it into our forecast models, and forecast 72 hours in the future. It is really good. Not only do we forecast the currents, for example, if there’s an oil spill, we know where the oil is going to go. NYHOPS has evolved into a system that has a storm surge warning component. We have maps on the Internet, which look at all the areas around New Jersey and New York, and parts of Connecticut, along the coast. And, when there’s an event happening, these little areas start to blink, and send email messages out to the police, to government, to people who have registered. It says, in the next 8 hours, something is going to happen, be prepared. NYHOPS has tremendous attention.

And, the public is able to access that?

Totally for free. We’ve resisted any pressure to make money. We do it all for free, and put it on the Internet. We have a big project now with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. They want to know 72 hours ahead of time, how much water is going to come, for example, to the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel? How much is going to be on the runways of the airports, at Teterboro, JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark? And I say, we’re going to do that, and we’re doing it by, putting the sensors out into the environment, to measure water levels and then forecast them. This is really fantastic research.

What type of resiliency projects are you working on, particularly with President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force?

Our key initiative is to build a program called CRUX, coastal resilience urban excellence, and that is all about figuring out how to protect urban environments. We have a new facility on that waterfront, where nine feet of water came, and really made a mess of this building, but now what we’ve done is to take the side that faces the water, faces Manhattan, and put a glass garage door, floor to ceiling, and put another one [at] the other end of the building.  So, imagine when the next hurricane comes, and the water is hitting the building, you open the two doors, and the water goes right through; you become resilient. That’s a way to study resiliency, so maybe that’s how we’ll build the jersey shore. Don’t build a wall that’s going to be knocked down, make it open! Let the water go by. That is one of our ideas: CRUX, it’s called, how to live with the changing environment.

So, not just the Hoboken resiliency, you’re working on the greater New Jersey/New York resiliency?

The the world is our water playground. We have colleagues in Holland, in Delft, we have colleagues in Brazil, in the Rio area. We have colleagues in Singapore. All these areas that they get impacted; we have been talking to Google about modeling areas of the world that get devastated, let’s say Tacloban in the Philippines, and different areas of India that get devastated. Maybe they can have a forecast model running, and when you want to know what’s happening, you go to Google, and put in your address. A lot of those countries are very poor, and they don’t have the facilities we have here. Google’s involved, and even Twitter’s involved, with the Weather Channel, and Microsoft for sure.   Good weather information is the future, and any of you students want to go into a new field, go into oceanography, especially urban meteorology.


Interviewed by Joanna Felsenstein
Assisted by Colin Kochenash
Edited by Joanna Felsenstein
Hoboken, New Jersey
Recorded April 1, 2015