Hofstra Horizons Research

Superstorm Sandy’s Legacy: Studying How Coastal Residents Decide Whether to Evacuate

from the Spring 2016 Issue of Hofstra Horizons
E. Christa Farmer, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability, Hofstra University
Elisabeth Ploran, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Hofstra University
Mary Anne Trasciatti, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Rhetoric, Hofstra University

Impacts of Superstorm Sandy:

“Superstorm” Sandy arrived on the East coast of the United States in late October 2012, leaving behind a swath of destruction in the Hofstra area that lingers to this day. Growing from a tropical depression to a tropical storm to a hurricane as the atmospheric disturbance crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the storm morphed into a “post-tropical cyclone” just before making landfall near Brigantine, New Jersey, on October 29, 2012. The storm’s enormous size (one of the largest ever recorded in the tropical Atlantic) and destructive power resulted in catastrophic impacts in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and the surrounding areas: at least 72 deaths, over 650,000 houses damaged, and subway and other infrastructure systems brought to a standstill (Blake et al., 2013).

Dr. Mary Anne Trasciatti, Hofstra University associate professor of rhetoric and a resident of Long Beach, New York, was directly affected by the storm: the first floor of her house was filled with sewage-laden flood waters. The town was left without functioning sewer or water systems for weeks. In the process of cleaning up and trying to recover, she recognized the historic importance of the storm. Wanting to help other residents of Long Beach record their experiences with the storm, she started an oral history project by recruiting neighbors at a local coffee shop, among other places, to tell her their stories. Sitting down over the next several months with dozens of Long Beach residents and a video camera, she created an invaluable historic archive. This archive became an important resource for understanding the event.

Dr. E. Christa Farmer, Hofstra University associate professor of geology, environment and sustainability, was also directly affected by the storm. Having become involved with studying paleotempestology, or the geologic record of storms like hurricanes, she had moved out of Long Beach for what she thought was a safer area in the center of Long Island. Nevertheless, like many others, she found herself living with the loss of electricity for 13 days, some in near-freezing temperatures. Superstorm Sandy created a new set of geologic deposits in the barrier beach islands that she was studying, and analysis of those sediments became two chapters in a book titled Learning From the Impacts of Superstorm Sandy (Elsevier, 2014), which she co-edited with Dr. J Bret Bennington, professor and chair of the Hofstra University Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability.

Dr. Elisabeth Ploran, Hofstra University assistant professor of psychology, spent the night that Superstorm Sandy made landfall huddled in her 11th floor apartment, wondering if the building’s windows would blow out from the wind. Though saved from devastating direct effects to her home, the gasoline shortage that followed the storm left Dr. Ploran with limited means to commute to campus from Queens. As a cognitive neuroscientist, she has studied spatial cognition using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in combination with virtual reality as well as in real-world settings at West Point. Her work focuses on how people think about space and make decisions regarding their use of or movement through space, particularly given multiple options.

Coastal Storm Awareness Program

The storm’s enormous size (one of the largest ever recorded in the tropical Atlantic) and destructive power resulted in catastrophic impacts in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and the surrounding areas: at least 72 deaths, over 650,000 houses damaged, and subway and other infrastructure systems brought to a standstill (Blake et al., 2013).

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started the Coastal Storm Awareness Program (CSAP) in 2013, putting out a call to study evacuation decision-making during Sandy, the three of us jumped at the chance. We knew that Dr. Trasciatti’s interviews were a unique and powerful archive that could be marshaled to try to answer this tough question: why didn’t more folks evacuate before the storm hit land? Despite remarkably successful forecasts of the storm track and predicted impacts (Gall et al., 2013; Samenow, 2012; Cohn, 2012; NHC/NWS), most residents largely ignored evacuation warnings. Unofficial estimates by the City of Long Beach suggested that less than one-third of city residents evacuated before the storm arrived, while an estimated 90 percent of residents left the city shortly after the storm. Although many studies of this question rely on data from surveys, Dr. Trasciatti’s interviews were unstructured and open-ended, and allowed subjects to elaborate on their thinking through telling their stories. This approach allowed the interviews to be analyzed for much more in-depth information about the subjects’ decision-making processes.

Funded by CSAP through the Sea Grant programs of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, our project began to expand the collection of interviews that Dr. Trasciatti had started after the storm hit. We hired an MFA student to operate the camera; we hired psychology graduate students to conduct the interviews; and we hired a transcriptionist to convert all the recordings into text so we could analyze them. We also hired an interpreter, with the goal of collecting additional interviews from the Spanish-speaking population in Long Beach. To find interviewees, we collaborated with Nelly Romero, program director at the Long Beach Latino Civic Association, who was an enthusiastic booster for our project. Unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of residency legalities, we were ultimately not able to recruit many Spanish-speaking people to share their stories about the storm. For now, the question of differences between native and non-native English speakers’ access and reaction to storm warnings remains an open question that should be investigated in the future.

Collecting Data

Over the course of the project, we collected, transcribed and analyzed 52 interviews with residents of Long Beach, NY, about their experiences during Sandy, including eight Spanish-language interviews. A short sampling of some of the interview videos is available at the website of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University: hofstra.edu/ncsssandy. We hired several Hofstra undergraduate students to hand-code the transcriptions for themes or concerns shared by the interviewees. The findings indicated that residents talked much more about family and friends when describing their decision to evacuate than they talked about traditional authority figures. This interpersonal interaction included hearing about other people’s experiences with past hurricanes, such as Hurricane Irene in 2011, and their resulting attitude about the ability to stay in Long Beach during a storm event. The question remains, though, whether that data indicates greater influence of family and friends on the actual decision-making process, or whether people rely on the traditional authority figures for making their decision but talk more about the ramifications of the decision with regard to their family and friends.

Panelists and organizers of the April 30, 2015, symposium, from left to right: John McNally, Paul Wilders, Anthony Eramo, Nelly Romero, Amy Simonson, Mary Anne Trasciatti, E. Christa Farmer, Erika Schaub, Adam Sobel, and Elisabeth Ploran.

Phase two of our study involved administering a survey to 291 adult participants in Long Beach, Island Park, Oceanside and Baldwin, NY, in order to test alternative wording and spokespeople for storm advisories. We wrote 34 survey questions, each posing a different coastal storm warning message; after reading each message, the participant was asked whether he or she would evacuate, consider leaving, or stay put. Having hired a dozen Hofstra undergraduate students to administer the survey, we sought out participants in locations such as coffee shops, public libraries, fitness centers, restaurants, ice cream shops, garden centers, dance centers, bagel shops, and grocery stores. The students put in 919 hours over seven weeks, finding that the most successful locations for soliciting participants were public spaces like libraries and recreation centers, and independently owned establishments like coffee shops, bagel shops, diners, and gyms, where the patrons were not in a big hurry.

Messages tested in the survey included exact transcriptions of “robo-calls” issued to residents of Long Beach, NY, in the days prior to Sandy’s landfall by City of Long Beach government officials; evacuation warnings made by major news outlets; specific statements about storm magnitude in terms of storm surge and wind speed; and general statements by (fictional) local figures outside of the traditional authority structure. These fictional characters included local store owners, longtime coastal residents, an “avid local fisherman,” a professor of atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University, and superintendents of local school districts. The goal was to test what kinds of messages urged people to make an evacuation decision while imagining an oncoming hurricane.


Based on the language analysis of the interviews, which identified a heavy emphasis on the role of friends and family in evacuation decisions, we expected the nontraditional authority figures to be more persuasive in our survey. In fact, the top 10 scenarios in terms of persuasiveness included the governor, members of the local fire department, and the county executive. Notably, none of the nontraditional authority figures made this list. The rest of the top 10 scenarios contained only storm magnitude information, or used the words “mandatory evacuation.” Also notable is the apparent importance of actions taken by authority figures, such as firefighters going door to door or police officers evacuating their own families. In addition to the messages from authorities and the information about the magnitude of the storm, there was some receptiveness to messaging about the potential loss of utilities, sewer systems, and other critical household supplies. These initial results will allow us to refine our messaging and guide local authorities toward the information that is most relevant to the public.

A Symposium on Superstorm Sandy and Preparedness

On April 30, 2015, we presented some of this research at a symposium we organized at Hofstra University through the support of the Hofstra Cultural Center, titled Are We Ready for the Next Hurricane? A Symposium on Superstorm Sandy and Preparedness. We convened two panels of experts to discuss the impacts of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and current steps being taken to recover and prepare for future similar events. The first panel included Adam Sobel, professor of atmospheric science at Columbia University and author of Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future; Amy Simonson, hydrologic technician for the U.S. Geological Survey and contributor to Learning From the Impacts of Superstorm Sandy (J Bret Bennington and E. Christa Farmer, eds.); Anthony Eramo, member of the Long Beach City Council; and Nelly Romero, program director of the Long Beach Latino Civic Association.

The findings indicated that residents talked much more about family and friends when describing their decision to evacuate than they talked about traditional authority figures.

The first panel looked back at what happened during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Adam Sobel highlighted the accuracy of the short-term predictions of the storm’s track, size and intensity, but also discussed the problems with communication of those predictions and misunderstandings of the hazards presented by the storm. Because the storm was not technically a hurricane when it made landfall, many evacuation decisions were made late or not at all. He also mentioned how the minimal impacts of Irene on this area reduced peoples’ likelihood to evacuate again for Sandy. He praised emergency management, however, saying that especially in comparison to Katrina, most of the right decisions were made in preparation for Sandy. He also pointed out that we aren’t as good at preparation for long-term changes, such as sea level rise. Amy Simonson presented some data that was collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to quantify the storm surge heights – agreeing with Adam Sobel that the predictions of Sandy were fairly accurate. She emphasized that all the data are available to the public through the USGS website.

Anthony Eramo, a resident of Long Beach, confirmed that his experience with Irene strongly influenced his decision not to evacuate for Sandy. He now regrets that decision, as his home was flooded with 60 inches of water and he felt his children were in danger. He noted how the city took several actions in preparation for the storm: a berm was built across the beach front, though most flooding came from the bay side; buses were put on bridges so as to be safe but available for post-storm evacuation; and 20,000 sand bags were distributed. He described the damage that Long Beach sustained: most houses were destroyed; sewer and water and cell phone service was disrupted; 200,000 cubic yards of sand was deposited in the city; and 300,000 cubic yards of debris (sheet rock, possessions, etc.) was removed afterward. He opined that sewer service is most important; one can always buy bottled water, although portable toilets were eventually installed.

Nelly Romero agreed that her experience with Irene led her not to evacuate for Sandy, and that she regretted that decision because she felt “parental guilt.” She described a hellish atmosphere as the water rose, the power plant exploded, and darkness erupted, and suggested that evacuation should have been made mandatory somehow. She detailed the difficult adaptations she and her family had to make in the following months, and the many other organizations that she worked with professionally in order to assist local residents to recover.

The second panel included Erika Schaub, assistant director of public safety and emergency management officer at Hofstra University; Paul Wilders, director of emergency planning at the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management; John McNally, co-chair of the Long Beach Community Reconstruction Program and associate director of regional action for The Energeia Partnership at Molloy College; and Elisabeth Ploran, representing our project. This panel focused on efforts being made to prepare for future similar storm events. Erika Schaub described the process of preparing for all kinds of storms on the Hofstra campus, especially by visiting all the various departments to make specific plans. She was gratified to see hurricane plans that she previously wrote for the New York City Fire Department implemented during Sandy’s landfall. Although the impacts of Sandy on the Hofstra campus were not terrible, she emphasized that the plans are available online for anyone to reference for future events.

Paul Wilders, who was the plans section chief for Nassau County’s Emergency Team during Superstorm Sandy, emphasized that while over 85,000 homes in Nassau County were touched by the sea, only 1,150 people were sheltered. He also outlined steps Nassau County has taken since Sandy to improve preparedness, including identifying community members who might play a larger role in preparedness. John McNally discussed phases of the city’s response to Sandy: keeping the water out, and then removing what got in. He mentioned the age of Nassau County’s infrastructure as a problem, because there is flooding for even relatively common rainfall events.

Elisabeth Ploran described the premise of the Coastal Storm Awareness Program: how can we better understand motivations behind peoples’ evacuation decisions? Storm information, which is communicated fairly effectively, is not the only basis for peoples’ evacuation decisions; they also consider their personal history with storms, their family’s personal history with storms, and the quality of their house and community, among other factors. She emphasized the importance of Mary Anne Trasciatti’s interviews as a resource for understanding decision-making because of the open-ended nature of their narratives. After both panels spoke, there were insightful and powerful observations and questions from the audience, which was composed primarily of Hofstra students and community members who were affected by Sandy.

Next Steps

Now that the data are all collected, we are completing more sophisticated analyses of what they mean. The research we did for this project was presented in Chicago, IL, at the Annual Conference of the Psychonomic Society in November 2015, in a poster session titled “The use of personal interviews to design and test new pre-storm evacuation messages.” Incorporating feedback from that conference presentation, we are preparing a manuscript on the project for a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

So, are we ready for the next hurricane?

Hofstra Cultural Center Event Coordinator Amy Trotta pointed out in the process of planning our April 2015 event that there was a Cultural Center event at Hofstra on November 5-7, 1992, titled The Next Long Island Hurricane: Are We Ready for the “Big One”? That event, more than 23 years ago, covered many of the same themes that our event covered last year. That the organizers of last year’s event did not know about the 1992 event only drives home the point that generational memory is so important when it comes to the decisions that individuals make in the urgent moment of disaster. Perhaps we need to remind each other, over and over again, of the impact of events such as Sandy, so that we never forget — and so that we can be better prepared for the next time.


Blake, Eric S., Kimberlain, Todd B., Berg, Robert J., Cangialosi, John P., & Beven II, John L. National Hurricane Center (February 12, 2013) (PDF). Hurricane Sandy: October 22-29, 2012 (Tropical Cyclone Report). United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service http://www.nhc. noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL182012_Sandy.pdf (accessed 1 Oct 2015).

Cohn, Nate. October 30, 2012. “Weather Models Get Sandy Right,” The New Republic. http://www.tnr.com/blog/ electionate/109370/weather-models-get-sandy-right (accessed 1 Oct 2015).

Gall, R., et al. (2013). “The Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 94(3): 329-343.

National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, “Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Sandy,” 12 February 2013. http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/ AL182012_Sandy.pdf.

Panelists and organizers of the April 30, 2015, symposium, from left to right: John McNally, Paul Wilders, Anthony Eramo, Nelly Romero, Amy Simonson, Mary Anne Trasciatti, E. Christa Farmer, Erika Schaub, Adam Sobel, and Elisabeth Ploran.

Nelly Romero and Anthony Eramo discussing their experiences with Superstorm Sandy at the April 30, 2015, panel event at Hofstra.

National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, “Hurricane Irene Advisory Archive,” last modified 17 July 2012. Accessed 16 November 2013 at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2011/IRENE.shtml.

National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service, “Hurricane Sandy Advisory Archive,” last modified 31 December 2012. Accessed 16 November 2013 at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2012/SANDY.shtml.

Samenow, Jason. November 6, 2012. “National Hurricane Center hits bull’s-eye with dead-on early forecast for Sandy,” The Washington Post.


Some of this data was collected by Hofstra University using federal funds under the Coastal Storm Awareness Program (NOAA awards NA13OAR4830227, NA13OAR4830228, NA13OAR4830229) from the National Sea Grant College Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The federal funds were provided via appropriations under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 (P.L. 113-2) and the Sea Grant Act (33 U.S.C. 1121 et seq.). Funding was awarded to the financial hosts of the Sea Grant College Programs in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York via their financial host institutions, the University of Connecticut, the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, and the Research Foundation of State University of New York, respectively. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Sea Grant College Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, or any of the other listed organizations.


news-horizons-farmerE. Christa Farmer was one of the first students at Stanford University to graduate with a BS in earth systems (1994), an interdisciplinary environmental program that incorporates courses in biology, geology and economics. Now she is an associate professor in the Geology, Environment and Sustainability Department at Hofstra University. Her doctoral dissertation in paleoceanography at Columbia University (2005) introduced new high-resolution climate records from the Southern Hemisphere. More recently, she has been studying records of hurricanes in coastal sediments, and co-edited a book with J Bret Bennington, published in 2014 by Elsevier, titled Learning From the Impacts of Superstorm Sandy.

news-horizons-ploranElisabeth Ploran is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Hofstra University. She earned a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh in 2010, after publishing two papers that introduced a new methodology for studying incremental changes in decision-making through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Her postdoctoral fellowship at George Mason University, funded by the Office of Naval Research, focused on differences in approach to spatial navigation decisions by experts and novices. This shift in focus to more applicable cognitive problems is currently at the core of Dr. Ploran’s research interests, including projects on lupus patients, mindfulness interventions, and pre-storm messaging.

news-horizons-trasciattiMary Anne Trasciatti is an associate professor at Hofstra University, where she teaches courses in the Rhetoric, Women’s Studies, and Labor Studies programs. Her current scholarly, creative and activist work comprises three ventures: (1) a book about the free speech work of labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn that illuminates how early 20th-century radicals created and used public space to advocate for economic justice; (2) an oral history project to record, preserve and represent stories about Superstorm Sandy as narrated by residents of the barrier island coastal community of Long Beach, NY; and (3) a campaign to remember the 146 victims (mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls) of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City and the resulting movement for workers’ rights and safety with a permanent public art memorial.

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