NEWBURYPORT – Mother Nature must know Halloween is coming, because next week’s weather forecast looks awfully scary.
Hurricane Sandy is tracking north through the Bahamas and is expected to affect the Northeast early next week. Should the storm directly impact New England, it could be more damaging and destructive than Tropical Storm Irene was last year, experts say.
“It could be very powerful and has the potential for loss of life,” Charlie Foley, a spokesman from the National Weather Service, said. “We haven’t seen a storm like this in decades.”
What has meteorologists especially worried is the possibility that a Nor’easter moving in from the west could combine with Sandy, which would greatly intensify what is already a powerful storm.
At this point, it’s too early to predict the exact track of the storm. The latest computer models suggest the storm will make landfall somewhere in New Jersey just south of New York City late this weekend, but Foley said there’s a chance the storm could veer off and make landfall as far north as Maine.
“The consensus is that it’s going to either make landfall or brush very close in the coastal waters,” Foley said. “But this is such a large storm that whether or not it actually makes landfall, it will still have an impact that could be very powerful.”
Yesterday, Sandy was a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, with sustained winds of 105 miles per hour. The storm is expected to weaken as it moves north through the Atlantic, but could still bring hurricane-force winds and heavy flooding to the area, especially if it does merge with the westward-moving Nor’easter.
Foley said the storm could also bring high seas, 25-foot tall waves and widespread power outages. Some experts say the storm has the potential to be a billion-dollar disaster.
The storm is especially worrisome to residents of Plum Island, where beach erosion is a major concern and a storm of this size could potentially wash numerous houses out to sea.
In an instance of perfect timing, officials scraped the beach to protect five vulnerable homes on Annapolis Way less than a month ago, but there are still other homes that are vulnerable.
Keenly aware of the danger and the limited time to respond, local, state and federal officials have mobilized to clear all the hurdles necessary to scrape in front of the vulnerable homes, particularly around the residence known as the Bennett Hill house, before the storm arrives, according to state Sen. Bruce Tarr.
The hill is located just south of Plum Island center, and the yellow Victorian-era home that sits at its summit has long been a Plum Island landmark. In the past few years, erosion has eaten away at the base of the sand dune hill.
Bob Connors, who has lived on Plum Island since 1979, applied for an emergency beach permit for the homes around Bennett Hill from the Army Corps of Engineers, Tarr said. The Newbury Conservation Commission has already approved the application, and now the application is working its way up through the state and federal ranks, Tarr said.
“The federal permit is contingent on some state approvals, and we traveled a good distance to get everything in order that we’re going to need,” Tarr said. “My hope and expectation is that we’re going to have approval well in advance of the onset of the storm.”
As of now, state officials have not identified any similar courses of action to protect the island center before the storm hits, Tarr said.
The impact that the storm could have on the Newburyport area varies depending on whether the storm passes to the north or to the south, according to Newburyport City Marshal Thomas Howard, who also serves as emergency management services director. The worst-case scenario would be for the storm to pass to the north, he said.
“If it goes to the north of us, we’re going to get flooding, extensive winds, heavy downpours and the impact is much greater with the wind velocity,” Howard said. “If it goes to the south of us, we’d end up with beach erosion and flooding, but much less precipitation and wind speed.”
The storm is already drawing comparisons to The Perfect Storm that ravaged New England in late-October of 1991, due to the two storms’ strength and timing. Sandy is expected to impact the area on Monday, almost 21 years to the day after The Perfect Storm hit.
Howard said officials from Newbury and Newburyport are monitoring the storm’s track and are working together to prepare for its arrival. The metal ramps that lead out to the beaches on Plum Island have already been removed and the Department of Public Works has cleared storm drains.
Nearby in New Hampshire, state officials issued an emergency alert urging residents to stock up on emergency supplies and plan on potentially enduring several days without power.
Howard echoed that sentiment, adding that residents should assist their neighbors and bring all lawn furniture inside to reduce the risk of flying debris causing damage.
“The quickest way to get broken windows is to leave stuff in your yard,” Howard said.
Meanwhile, National Grid is developing crew assignments, preparing its workers and readying equipment so that it can respond as efficiently as possible in the face of widespread power outages.
“We have tracked Sandy very closely over the past several days, and preparedness plans are being developed to make sure our crews are ready to respond as quickly and safely as possible,” said Kathy Lyford, National Grid’s vice president of electric operations in New England. “We are leaving nothing to chance; we’re preparing for the worst.”