Notes on a hurricane

Paul Wells makes sense of the panic and swirl

Stray thoughts occasioned by Sandy’s landfall in New Jersey, and especially on sideswiped Manhattan:

1. Stop blaming populations for where they live. The Jersey Shore is millions of people living next to an immense and violent ocean. Manhattan is surrounded on all sides by water. By the dubious logic some people deployed after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 — Why do those people insist on living where something dangerous can happen? — the entire Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. should have been evactuated decades ago.

The problem with that logic is easier to see in New York City than in New Orleans, although it should have been obvious in New Orleans too: These communities are centuries old. Generations have made their lives there. And as I learned years ago on my first visit to the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University, a research centre devoted to minimizing damage from natural disasters, people everywhere are disproportionately likely to live in relatively more dangerous areas. The wide-open beaches, luxurious forests, scenic cliffs, sprawling prairie tracts and towering high-rises that attract homebuilders will also also leave them at perpetual risk from floods, fires, landslides, tornadoes and earthquakes.

Since I’m fond of New Orleans, one more point: Yes, its geography makes it a particularly vulnerable site, as this superb paper from the Tulane Environmental Law Journal eloquently explains. But its residents have less often thought of it as a vulnerable site than they have thought of it as home.

2. Politics another day. It’s fair to debate the contribution global warming made to Sandy’s violence, or to wonder whether a President Mitt Romney would have cut disaster relief along with Big Bird, or to critique Barack Obama’s response now that a potentially Katrina-scale disaster is happening on his watch. But political junkies who indulge such fascinations should not be surprised if they get sour looks from their neighbours, who are understandably more interested right now in fixing problems than in fixing blame.

3. News travels fast. The other night when it was hard to tell, right off the bat, how serious that earthquake in Haida Gwaii might turn out to be, rumours were flying thick and fast on Twitter. It was all a bit of a mess. That turned out to be nothing compared to the Twitter crapstorm of Monday night, when fake photos, outdated and misidentified photos, baseless rumour were as thick on the floor as the floodwaters that, it turned out, had not actually submerged the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. On Friday it fell to Former Colleague Coyne to point out that false rumours were being identified and debunked nearly as fast as they could be spawned, with the result that a generally reliable sense of what was going on could be had within several minutes.

On Monday Twitter was harder to like, but the same thing was happening: nonexistent floodwater shark attacks and invented transit schedules were rebutted almost as soon as they were postulated, and meanwhile the lived experience of New Yorkers from all over the city could reach the world unfiltered. No major development in the story went unreported for more than a few minutes.

Again, I’m struck by memories of Katrina. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was able to assert, more than a day after events, that populations were safe when they really weren’t, that emergency response was adequate when it was anything but.

‘”Everybody is confident of the ability to maintain order,” he said. “The fact of the matter is the Superdome is secure.”

‘TV reports followed his statement with more scenes of exhausted evacuees and images of dead bodies on the street.

‘ That afternoon, National Public Radio asked Chertoff about the thousands of people camped around New Orleans’ Convention Center who said no food or supplies had arrived.

‘Chertoff said that sounded to him like nothing more than a rumor. “I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who do not have food and water,” he said.’

That kind of sustained insulation from facts on the ground would be far harder to achieve today, as information gathering and dissemination have been (yet again, and still further than ever) radically decentralized from accredited organizations to individuals. The result is chaotic and signal-to-noise ratios are lower than anybody would want. But the result is more voices for more people. A silver lining, I think.

 

 

 




Browse

Notes on a hurricane

  1. Jeb Bush had no business letting that hurricane get past Florida either.

    You can clearly see how the chemtrails from Katrina generated by that secret weather machine in Cheney’s basement pushed those airplanes into the WTC with the innocent terrorists kidnapped by Richard Nixon’s alien clone from the Roswell crash while Ronald Reagan planted the thermite explosives in black helicopters during area 51 time travel experiments filming Bed Time for Bonzo with the help of Romney’s father…

    “The Twoof is out there on the X-Files”

    • Funny. You should write a book.

      • The EUSSR socialists can never face the facts of what socialism really is.

        • Some guy tried to build a toaster from scratch, mining and forging the metal, etc. Look him up. You are a part of the society whether you like it or not. Build your own rocket, and find your own planet to live on.

  2. Living near where there’s water is never a good idea but humans insist to do so.
    Humans set themselves up for disaster and are illogical.

    • Or they set themselves up for transporation, shipping of goods and commerce? The world didn’t start last Wednesday.

    • Yes, to be safe and secure, we should all move to the centre of the continent.

  3. The big difference between most of eastern seaboard and New Orleans, as I see it, is the use of dykes and levees to allow people to live at or below sea level. When the levees broke, the influx of water was much greater than that caused by a storm surge alone. I’m not going to tell anyone else where to live, but I like to keep to the high ground, myself.

  4. ” It’s fair to debate the contribution global warming made to Sandy’s violence … ”

    NASA ~ What’s dif between weather v climate?

    The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time. When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in long-term averages of daily weather.

    • Weather and Climate are not different. Weather is a collection of data points in the set Climate.When the set climate changes, the data in the set is affected.

      • But NASA says that it is. And that’s also what I learned in grade 8 science.

        • Then you didn’t proceed to slightly higher levels of mathematics and metaphor?
          samu press store _ cartoon life blog _ samu press blog

  5. I don’t know what twitter was saying about the quake off the QCs, but it looked oddly comforting to see folks in small communities who couldn’t get reliable, timely info from their govt turn to US sources in order to make a realistic assessment of the situation. Worrying of course, but strangely comforting too; the world gets smaller every day from a communication perspective.

  6. I don’t get your commentary on people blaming populations for where they live. Nature presents risks no matter where you live. Governments at all levels have an interest in assessing these kinds of risks and identifying ways of managing them given disaster and emergency response and relief programs that are typically set up and funded at local, regional and national levels. Municipal planning laws are used to manage geographical risk – for example, not permitting people to build or rebuild on floodplains when new information comes to light about changing flood risk or requiring geotech reports from engineers prepared to certify that land can be used safely for the use intended where there is a risk of avalanche, flooding, debris torrents etc. This kind of thing to me is as fundamental to security as having an army, police force or fire department.

Sign in to comment.