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Superstorms and the Demise of Prudence

The island of Manhattan, it has often been noted, is shaped like the prow of a great ship, proudly pointing into New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean from which so much of its wealth and its people have historically flowed.  Like the Titanic, whose demise marked its centenary this year, the City has often been thought of as unsinkable, a trillion-dollar asset situated at sea level yet somehow immune to the danger that the sea might ever burst its banks.

Yet around 8 PM on Monday, October 29 (the 83rd anniversary of the “Black Tuesday” stock market crash), the unthinkable happened.  The prow of Manhattan sunk beneath the rising waves, and water poured into the city on three sides.  Water flooded into apartments, storefronts and iconic landmarks, and 400 million gallons of it gushed into the mouths of tunnels or subway stations, filling the underbelly of the great city.  An apocalyptic scene unfolded over the next few hours, as power stations exploded, hospitals were evacuated, fires raged, people cried for help over the roar of the wind and the waves.  Over the coming days, the full extent of the devastation would become clear, and Manhattan would come to look lucky by comparison to many neighboring communities.  The superstorm (for once the moniker was no mere media gimmick, but a sober description of an event that left lifelong meteorologists shocked and awed) left its mark on an astonishing 22 states, not to mention Canada and the Caribbean, and claimed the lives of at least 113 Americans, a number that seems mercifully low given its thousand-mile reach and $50 billion price tag, but which ranks it as the fourth deadliest US hurricane of the satellite era (when the final tally is in, it will probably rank third, behind only Katrina and 1969’s Camille).  Hundreds more, it seems certain, would have died, if it had not been for the remarkably courageous rescues carried out by first responders, firemen, and the Coast Guard during the height of the storm.

But why did so many need to be rescued?  Why were so many in harm’s way?  The responses of survivors are a litany of incredulity and surprise—”We never knew it was going to be this bad.”  “Who knew the water could’ve gotten that high?”  “We prepared for a storm, but not for this.”  Such remarks were echoed by authorities, eagerly covering their own hindquarters by emphasizing how unexpected the scale of the disaster was—Mayor Bloomberg and Consolidated Edison both took pains to stress that the waters rose higher than the most extreme predictions.  So bewildered was the public and the media at the size and ferocity of the storm that they seem to have taken these protestations at face value, exonerating the authorities of any responsibility for unpreparedness.  The problem is that they simply aren’t true.  The unprecedented storm surge—9 to 10 feet in the NYC area—fell right within (though admittedly, toward the higher end of) the projected 6 to 11 ft. surge that the National Hurricane Center had settled on almost 36 hours in advance.  It was bad fortune for NYC, to be sure, that the peak storm surge arrived at their high tide, but it had been warned that such ill fortune was a real possibility.


In fact, nearly every aspect of the storm had been forecast with pinpoint accuracy—by the National Hurricane Center four or five days in advance, and by some global forecast models fully eight days in advance.  To those familiar with meteorology, so perfectly did Sandy follow the forecasts that the events of last Monday unfolded with an air of chilling inevitability, almost as if following a script written and read in advance.  It was quite possibly the best forecast ever issued by the NHC, hesitant though they were to believe the doom projected by their computer models, and most authorities acted decisively upon the predictions, ordering sweeping evacuations, which were simply not followed in many cases.

The storm exposed with bitter clarity the yawning gap between knowledge and action, between pure reason and practical reason, that besets the modern American psyche.  Perhaps more than any other nation, America has put its faith in the project of modernity, the idea that humanity’s problems can be solved by ever-increasing knowledge of the natural world and technological advancement.  This project has reached the point of diminishing returns as it has become clear that our increase in empirical and technical knowledge seems increasingly confined to “experts,” unable to efficiently trickle down to the general populace despite the explosion of media in “the Information Age.”  Worse, our increasing theoretical knowledge seems to have been accompanied by an atrophy of our abilities to prudently apply and act upon the knowledge we have gained.

This may seem like a bit too much to make out of a single event, and a historically unprecedented one at that.  After all, it is human nature to take foolish risks, and to stay behind and protect one’s property when disaster strikes.  However, this event does seem to be part of a disturbing trend of heedlessness—between 1972 and 2005 (a period that includes legendary storms such as Andrew and Hugo), no hurricane inflicted more than 56 deaths in the US; since then, three storms have topped 100—and all were storms in which urgent evacuation orders were ignored by many.  Inattention to warnings is also at least partially responsible for the extraordinary death tolls in several 2011 tornadoes.  Our ability to prevent deaths in natural disasters during the past decade seems to have regressed to the levels of the 1950s, a period when we lacked almost all our current technological aids, and “more extreme weather” does not sufficiently account for it.  Why is this happening?

At least three factors seem to be operative.


1) Distrust of authority.  Americans have to some extent always been characterized by their rugged individualism, their self-reliance and consequent distrust of authority, and this has often been seen as a strength.  More recently, however, this tendency seems to have become so strong as to become a serious vice.  For years now, distrust both of political leaders and of the scientific community has been growing, and has reached epidemic proportions, so that many reflexively assume on almost any issue that they are being lied to.  Rush Limbaugh, perhaps one of the most assiduous peddlers of this malady, took it to a new extreme in late August, when he suggested that the National Hurricane Center was deliberately manipulating forecasts of Hurricane Isaac to sabotage the Republican National Convention.  Whether he was serious or not, the basic message was clear—you can’t trust anybody, not even the weather forecasters whose sole job is to save lives.  Indeed, it was hardly the first such accusation leveled at the NHC, which has in recent years been accused of artificially inflating the number of tropical storms so as to boost evidence of climate change.  Right-wing op-eds in recent years have called for the privatization of weather forecasting services, maligning the NWS and NHC as unreliable and inefficient, despite the extraordinary and ever-improving accuracy of their forecasts.  A general impression has settled in the public consciousness that their own gut sense—”It’s probably not gonna be that bad”—is probably more reliable than any official forecast.

2) Media hype.  Many of the excuses in the aftermath of Sandy ran along the lines, “Well, look at all the hype last year about Irene, and it wasn’t that bad.  I figured Sandy wouldn’t be either.”  Indeed, there seems to be a general sense that the forecasts routinely over-hype storms, and Sandy was a rare exception that lived up to the hype.  But in fact, Irene was fairly accurately forecast, nearly matching most official projections, although not living up to worst-case scenarios, which the media appropriately publicized.  The problem was that the media tended to portray worst-case scenarios, at every point along the forecast path, as the expected scenario, thus leading to a sense among the public that the boy had cried wolf when there was no wolf.  The Information Age, we were promised, would put more and better information in the hands of every man, woman, and child, but this does not seem to be happening.  Why?  Because we are overloaded with information, streaming at us 24/7 through innumerable media sources.  Our instinct, confronted with such a bombardment, is to tune out, and hear only what we want to hear.  The media, seeking to compensate, and each seeking to make itself heard among the others, raises the volume and the intensity of its coverage.  Every event becomes “Breaking News” prompting the network to go into “Alert Mode.”  This merely desensitizes viewers further, prompting media to have to result to ever-loftier superlatives to get attention.  When a truly extraordinary event comes along, they have run out of superlatives and we have run out of patience.  Even when accurate information is given, as it frequently was in the media lead-up to Sandy, it is too late, as viewers have largely lost their ability to tell the difference between sober prediction and mere sensationalism.

3) Short-termism.  Perhaps this is all unfair.  Natural disasters happen sometimes, and there’s nothing you can ever do to prepare adequately.  Just look at the Japanese tsunami last year—huge seawalls and excellent warning systems, but all to no avail.  This seems to be the plea of some public officials, like those at ConEd in New York, who have thrown up their hands and said, “Who knew the water would go that high?”  But the problem is that the surge level in New York was not a 1-in-1,000-year event (the flood level that Tokyo is protected for), or a 1-in-10,000-year event (the level that Amsterdam is prepared for).  It was more like a 1-in-200-year event, as was Katrina in New Orleans.  Engineers have built one of the world’s largest subway systems, together with extensive rail and road tunnels, at a harbor, a few feet above sea level, and have barely invested in any protective infrastructure.  As the examples of Tokyo and Amsterdam suggest, this extraordinary lack of long-term disaster preparedness seems a particularly American problem, one owing perhaps to our country’s short history, and rootlessness (when the country was constantly expanding and migrating westward, there seemed little reason to invest in protective infrastructure for older eastern cities).  Irene last year should have been a wake-up call, since a not-very-strong storm that did not hit at high tide still came close to flooding Manhattan.  But instead, bizarrely, it was taken as confirmation that complacency was warranted, by both residents and local authorities alike.  Short-term thinking is a vice that is common to the whole race, and modern Americans have no monopoly on it.  However, our national character, with little sense of history and tradition, seems uniquely prone to it, and our political and economic discourse suggests that we are becoming ever more trapped in it.  Our technological mindset lulls us with the promise that more inventions will enable us to avert harm in the future without making sacrifices in the present. But storms like Sandy remind us that technology is no substitute for prudence.  A computer model that foretells a superstorm 8 days in advance is of little use to save lives if warnings are ignored, and of little use to save buildings and infrastructure which must be protected years in advance.


Worse, the tragic consequences of this disconnect between knowledge and action that Sandy has exposed appears to be a mere picture in miniature of what the whole planet faces.  Just as we have invested in forecasting models that will tell us when storms will hit, but we refuse to believe authorities who pass on the message, or refuse to act on it; so we have invested in scientific research and long-term climate models that tell us when our whole climate is headed for catastrophe, but we refuse to believe authorities who pass on the message, or refuse to act on it.  Although it is fruitless to debate whether climate change caused Superstorm Sandy, it has certainly increased the likelihood of such events, and so she stands as an urgent warning: there is no point in investing in the acquisition of knowledge about the natural world if we do not stand prepared to act on that knowledge—even when it is merely probable—and to make sacrifices accordingly.  Last Monday, homeowners on Staten Island decided they would wait to gather more facts, wait till they could confirm the grim forecast with their own eyes, since it was, after all, only a forecast.  But by then, for some of them, it was too late.

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