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Dolman: What's in a name? For the National Weather Service, a whole lot

This image from a NOAA satellite shows Hurricane

This image from a NOAA satellite shows Hurricane Sandy before it made landfall. (Oct. 28, 2012) Credit: NASA GOES Project

Two days before Hurricane Sandy made an East Coast landfall, the feds downgraded it to a post-tropical cyclone.

Yes, a cyclone! The kind of thing that carried Dorothy from the prairies of Kansas to the Land of Oz. The kind of thing that thrill-seekers pay money to ride at Coney Island.

But the scientists at the National Hurricane Center knew precisely what they were doing, and from their perspective, they weren’t wrong. While the storm was astonishingly fierce, they explain in a report released yesterday, it was in point of fact weakening as it zeroed in on Brigantine, N.J. where it came ashore.

So technically—it was huge, awful, devastating, the worst natural disaster in New York State’s history and maybe in the history of the region—but please, it wasn’t a hurricane.

There are two problems here.

When the word hurricane goes away, it deprives the National Hurricane Center of official authority to issue advisories. So the agency now wants permission to keep churning out formal notices even after a deadly hurricane turns into a post-tropical cyclone. No objections.

The second problem is a little trickier. Some news media began to speak—quite accurately—of “superstorm Sandy” as the storm approached. Others clung to the common-sense but officially outdated “Hurricane Sandy.” There’s no right or wrong here from a journalistic point of view. But the situation did cause some confusion, and that’s not what you want in a howling, life-or-death, fast-moving crisis.

The new name made Sandy sound less serious than it was.

Look. As Sandy approached, the college students in my Lower Manhattan high-rise couldn’t figure out whether they wanted to ignore the city’s mandatory evacuation order and party in glorious defiance of petty bourgeois fears or pack the car and rush home as fast as possible to mom and dad. Most stayed put and regretted it.

At Long Beach, in Lower Manhattan, on Staten Island and in the Rockaways, evacuation rates were estimated at roughly 50 percent. There are countless reasons why so many stayed behind, but I think official language that sent confusing signals didn’t help.

So what happens when the next storm of the century threatens to gobsmack the region? I think we should just call it—and each one after it—Armageddon. At least it has clarity on its side.