As Sandy approaches the coast I am very thankful for my former colleagues at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab who have spent decades trying to make better predictions of tropical cyclones. And the colleagues around the world who have spent decades developing the techniques of observing and modeling the physics of cyclones. Both the recurving of the storm and the high storm surge (currently already at major flood levels at a number of points between NY and DE) would have taken tens of thousands of people, at a minimum, by surprise. Kurihara’s first paper in the line of research that led to today’s prediction (http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/bibliography/results.php?author=1061) was in 1965. It took him almost a decade to get to the first three-dimensional model of a hurricane and another couple of decades to improve the models to the point where they showed useful skill.
Just a little plug — it is important to remember that this kind of event, low-probability, high impact, is what well-run government is for. Putting together a storm-surge warning system for NY Harbor is not something that a private company is likely to do — the chances of it being used in any given 10-year period are so small as to make it a worthless investment. And the research that goes into making a forecast like this involves understanding of small-scale turbulence, understanding the transfer of radiation through the atmosphere and its interaction with multiple scatterers and absorbers, figuring out how to put weather satellites into orbit and keep them running, figuring out how to incorporate this information in computer codes, getting these codes to run reproducibly on large numbers of processors… almost all of this was accomplished by people working on the government dime.