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 That turned out to be nothing compared to the Twitter crapstorm of Monday night, when fake photos, outdated and misidentified photos, baseless rumour were as thick on the floor as the floodwaters that, it turned out, had not actually submerged the floor of the New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.