Keeping Calm in the Eye of the Storm

By Ryan Stolz, Media Relations Staff

It’s been nearly seven years since Superstorm Sandy wreaked lasting havoc throughout the New York-New Jersey region. But for Gerald McCarty, director of the Port Authority Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the next devastating storm is always potentially right around the corner.

To better prepare for the next Sandy-level storm and destructive surge, McCarty and his team are continually working to put the Port Authority in the best position to respond.

“As far as warning and the preparation that we have a storm coming, I think we’re in a better world today,” McCarty said.

McCarty credits this ‘better world’ to the Port Authority’s partnership with the Stevens Institute of Technology’s Davidson Laboratory. Established five years ago, the partnership has helped produce innovative forecasting models that more accurately detect early signs of serious flooding caused by rain and storm surge.

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Director McCarty in the OEM command center

Weather forecasters say the Atlantic hurricane season is expected to remain relatively quiet through the end of August. But the more intense fall season could be another story, with predictions of fierce storms that underscore the importance of collaboration between OEM and Stevens.

The need for that level of coordination was amplified during Superstorm Sandy. Just before the storm struck, the National Weather Service (NWS) informed the Port Authority about a projected surge but was unable to estimate its height or impact. The need for a more precise, localized monitoring system became clear.

As part of their predictive modeling, scientists at Stevens have placed sensors in bodies of water that deliver real-time data to a supercomputer housed at the Hoboken college. The computer produces four models per day, which are shared with the Port Authority and then distributed to other agencies or communities as warranted.

In 2018, the Davidson Laboratory underwent a leadership change, bringing new staff and a new way of thinking with the planned introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the equation by 2021, according to Saleh Kojak, a Port Authority geographic information systems specialist and OEM’s point person on the Stevens project.

“We are looking into different ways of modeling,” Kojak said. “We’re going to try and find patterns of weather systems and see if that can predict similar forecasts.”

Dr. Muhammad Hajj, the principal investigator at the Davidson Laboratory, notes how much more efficient forecasting can be with the implementation of AI, which he says can provide for 99 percent predictive accuracy.

“Having this information, we can use different strategies to design and protect these areas ahead of time instead of waiting for a hurricane to take place and try to see what we could do,” Hajj said.

The Davidson Lab has proven its worth several times, including a potential 2015 major storm surge at John F. Kennedy International Airport that, in fact, turned out to be no threat at all for significant flooding and severe disruption to airport operations. The lab’s projection based on its modeling program was correct.

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