Martin Ross / Let’s learn lessons Sandy taught us

A satellite image shows Hurricane Sandy approaching New Jersey on Monday, Oct. 29.

It's Oct. 31, and I am sitting in northern New Jersey in the dark. We have been without power for about 36 hours. Fortunately, we do have hot and cold water, a lot more than those more unfortunate people from Cape May northward to New York.

A week ago, my wife and I were walking on the Ventnor Boardwalk. It was a picture-perfect day with temperatures in the 70s, a cloudless beautiful blue sky from horizon to horizon and a beach with not one person in sight. There was not a wave on the ocean. In fact, it looked like one giant lake.

As we were walking along, I thought how lucky are those people who own those oceanfront houses. But then I thought, it's 16 years beyond the once-in-every-34-years probability for a storm such as The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, and my mind flashed back to the devastation that occurred along the New Jersey shore in that storm, when more than 1,500 homes were destroyed or damaged.

After more than 40 years of service as a meteorologist, I retired from the National Weather Service. Thirty of those years were involved in disaster preparedness for most of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. I started at the weather office in Atlantic City in June 1960, and in September I experienced the ferocity of Hurricane Donna. Less than two years later, the 1962 storm left an indelible mark on me and became my personal benchmark storm throughout my career. Hurricane Sandy has now tied with the '62 storm.

My wife, a native of Atlantic City, and I, a resident of 52 years, have sand in our shoes. We can't imagine living anywhere else, but we also respect the danger of living near the ocean. In 1963, the National Ocean Survey published a survey map of the highest water levels reached in March 1962. We used this map to decide where in Margate to build our house. Fortunately, we have never experienced any flooding.

Flood insurance wasn't available in the 1960s. It was after Hurricane Katrina that we purchased flood insurance. I realized that hurricanes and winter storms are becoming more intense and larger in size. Thunderstorms and tornadoes are becoming more powerful.

Hurricane Irene was time we ever evacuated our home, mainly because of three trees that have grown over the years that we feared could fall. None did, but one fell during the derecho in June. Sandy was a no-brainer for us to evacuate. As soon as the National Hurricane Center predicted a sharp left turn with landfall likely somewhere in New Jersey, we knew it was time to leave.

I have never seen a storm make an abrupt left turn and head for New Jersey. The back bay was pretty full as we were crossing the Margate causeway near high tide on Sunday morning, even though Sandy was hundreds of miles south of New Jersey. We were glad that we were leaving but apprehensive about what we would find upon our return.

Kudos to the meteorologists who have developed and improved the computer weather models over the years. Kudos also to National Hurricane Center forecasters for their excellent interpretation of those models and for their resulting forecasts starting as early as Oct. 23, and to the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly for emphasizing the severity and dangerous threat for New Jersey.

Ventnor and Atlantic City were fortunate to have the beach-replenishment and dune project earlier this year. It helped mitigate some of the damage. For several years, I have been amazed that some longtime local residents, even some politicians, have been advocating lowering the dunes that protected Atlantic City and Ventnor. I wonder if they feel that way now. I strongly believe that dunes should be mandatory for all of the New Jersey barrier islands and that they be built as high as possible and as wide as possible. After all, dunes are the barrier islands' first line of defense, and for all practical purposes, the islands' only line of defense.

I have seen houses that were on high ground demolished and the land lowered so that builders could build three-story houses instead of two stories. It defies logic. Even if you live offshore, I suggest that homeowners consider buying flood insurance. Remember what happened when 14 inches of rain fell in the Mays Landing area. Flooding could occur almost anywhere in New Jersey.

I believe that climate change is occurring. Most scientists (more than 90 percent) agree that global warming is occurring. It is difficult to believe that climate-change deniers have been able to convince many members of Congress not to support the Kyoto Accords of 1997 and other environmental legislation.

The threat of winter storms will exist for the next four to five months. Keep in mind that the beaches and dunes have been battered and eroded, making the shore more vulnerable to potential flooding. Above all, in the future, leave when mandatory evacuation is ordered. Property can be restored and rebuilt, but lives cannot.

Martin Ross, of Margate, was in charge of the Atlantic City National Weather Service Office from 1971 to 1984.

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