Lesson from Irene: Hurricanes are unpredictable

Hurricane Irene wasn't nearly as bad as it could've been. The consensus here in DC seems to be "nowhere near as bad as Isabel" (which hit the Mid-Atlantic in 2003), and many of the New Yorkers who ignored Mayor Bloomberg's orders to evacuate are probably feeling smug. Nonetheless, millions of people have lost power, and damage from flooding is widespread. And, according to the Associate Press, Irene's death toll has risen to 37. (Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has compiled US death tolls of past hurricanes, and Irene is steadily becoming one of the more deadly ones.)

Although Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it got to New York, some of its most severe impacts seem to be in upstate New York and Vermont, where houses have been swept away and bridges destroyed. The New York Times' Abby Goodnough reports that "the town of Prattsville [New York] has been washed away." Shelters are coping with an influx of people whose homes have flooded or been washed from their foundations.

Irene's winds could've been 10 mph faster when the storm made landfall, and the destruction could've been far worse. Or, the hurricane could've faded out sooner, and we'd have lost fewer lives and homes. A slightly different course would've meant less damage for some people, and more for others. It would've been hard to predict Irene's exact path and severity exactly.

Maybe you're one of the many Northeast residents who got lucky this time. Maybe you stockpiled water and granola bars and batteries, only to spend the storm sitting on the couch catching up on your favorite TV shows, occasionally looking out the window and saying "yeah, that's some wind and rain out there." That doesn't mean you'll get off easy the next time. Keep your stockpile of water and granola bars, and put your flashlights somewhere accessible and easy to remember. Know what you'll do if you have to evacuate. Better yet, follow all the recommendations from Ready.gov. There's only so much predictability when it comes to natural disasters.

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Tropical storms are getting so much stronger these days. Although we had high technology weather sensors or whatever they call it, Storms today are just that strong for us to get easy on it. We should really be prepare even it won't hit us. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Just when infrastructure is failing, we have these tremendous storms increasing in frequency. Seems like we need to rethink our priorities a bit, and to also prepare for a "live locally" type scenario from time to time.

Your use of "could've, would've" in a serious scientific-oriented blog is highly inappropriate. And you repeat such over and again. This said, I generally enjoy reading your blog posts and find them well-informed.

The soi-disant "recommentations" from Ready.gov are risible and insulting. They merely deceive the gullible. They are largely propaganda, often impractical, impracticable, and largely useless. And by deceiving many citizens, they are potentially dangerous.

Sylvan Johnson, DPhil, ScD

By Sylvan Johnson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2011 #permalink

I'm not sure what's objectionable about using "could've." I suppose I intended this post as something along the lines of public health communication rather than a scientific analysis, and maybe that's a disappointment. When it comes to convincing people to take public health actions, though, a presentation of scientific evidence doesn't always do the trick.

I wouldn't call the Ready.gov recommendations propaganda or impractical - it's hard to argue that it's a bad idea to have extra food, water, first aid supplies, and batteries on hand. They may be useless in some situations (like an earthquake that traps someone too far away from the supplies for them to be of use), but they can be very helpful for people who lose electricity or are cut off from stores, clinics, etc. by floodwaters or other problems.

I suppose if someone assumed that having sufficient supplies at home made it unnecessary to follow an evacuation order or other such advice, that would be a problem. I don't think the site would lead people to think that, though.