Researchers Say Hurricane Joaquin Could Cause up to 14M People to Lose Power

October 2, 2015

Hurricane Joaquin could result in power failure for as many as 14 million people, according to power outage forecasts by researchers at Texas A&M University and University of Michigan.

The forecasts take into account several different measures of wind speed, storm path and population density by census tract.

The researchers — Steven Quiring of Texas A&M and Seth Guikema at Michigan—have been making these forecasts for a decade. They accurately predicted that superstorm Sandy would knock out power for close to 10 million.

“There is still considerable uncertainty in where Hurricane Joaquin will make landfall and how strong it will be,” said Quiring, associate professor of geography at Texas A&M.

Hurricane Joaquin/NOAA
Hurricane Joaquin/NOAA

“Hurricane Joaquin currently has maximum sustained winds of 125 mph. As it moves northward it is forecast to remain hurricane-strength through Monday. However, there is substantial uncertainty regarding the intensity and track of this storm. There is the potential for impacts from the Carolinas through New England. Based on this uncertainty, there is a large variation in the location and magnitude of potential power outages. Our models predict between 2 and 14 million people will be without power as a result of this storm,” Quiring said. “We will continue to update our power outage estimates over the next 48 hours.”

“Joaquin could have power outage impacts on par with those of Sandy if it maintains a track towards major east coast population centers, though there is substantial uncertainty about the track,” said Guikema, U-M associate professor of industrial and operations engineering.

Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, ran aground in New Jersey in 2012. In the U.S., it caused more than $70 billion in damage. Many people went more than a week without electricity.

In the case of Joaquin, at this point the range of the power outage estimates is wide because meteorologists aren’t sure where the hurricane will hit. The National Hurricane Center looks to a suite of different computer models to predict the storm’s path.

Guikema says that most of those models, taken individually, point to landfall in southern Virginia or North Carolina. But the center’s official forecast, which takes into account all the models, puts Joaquin’s path further north, slamming into the Chesapeake Bay region. Because of this discrepancy (which isn’t uncommon at this stage), the researchers prepared power outage predictions for each scenario.

The researchers estimate that the official, more northern landfall forecast would put about 14 million in the dark if the hurricane intensity forecast is correct. If Joaquin takes the more southern route, roughly 2 million could be affected.

Both numbers are big, the researchers caution. And the outages could be long.
“Given how wet it has been on the east coast recently, regardless of which forecast turns out to be accurate, people should prepare for lengthy outages,” Guikema said. “There are going to be an awful lot of trees down. When the soil gets saturated, trees are a lot less stable and their root plays lift up more easily.”

Fallen trees are one of the main causes of power failures during storms, the researchers say. The researchers’ power outage forecasting system uses wind speed to account for how hurricanes affect trees. In addition to considering the maximum three-second wind gust at each census tract, it also considers how long they can expect winds in a particular area to stay above 45 mph.

Source: Texas A&M University

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