Monday, October 29, 2012

Is Hurricane Sandy unprecedented?

East Coast people's reports about their observations and courage are more than welcome

Update ex post facto: Sandy deserves the label "non-event" even more so than Irene did

The media are full of panic and strong words inspired by Hurricane Sandy, the "Frankenstorm" as some writers nicknamed it. Of course, this moniker – perhaps originally meant to indicate the Halloween time – is popular especially among those crackpots who want to argue that the storm is "man-made". Others are more modest and use the terms "mammoth, monster, superstorm" for Sandy.

A region of the New Jersey and Delaware coast is predicted to be "more like than not" to experience hurricane speeds (at least once, the 1-minute average speed must be above 74 mph). Also, see a photo gallery (27 pics) and the live broadcast from Weather Channel.

Events are being cancelled, institutions and major parts of the public transportation systems are being closed, and hundreds of thousands of people are being evacuated because of the late Category 1 hurricane that should land somewhere in New Jersey sometime on Monday evening, Eastern Daylight Saving Time, i.e. Tuesday morning European time. You may observe the predicted speed and status of the storm at the NOAA website.

I understand the sentiments behind the caution. On the other hand, I understand the skeptics much better. Many people clearly remember an isomorphic hysteria before the landing of Hurricane Irene in August 2011 which turned out to be a non-event. I remember a hurricane sometime around 2005 which was announced to land in New England – but the outcome could have been summarized by the sentence "It is raining in Boston".
Webcam: Try the rainy before-the-storm business-as-usual at The Times Square, other NYC places (sorry, the website may be overloaded)
The media are helping to preserve a certain kind of group think, a nearly religious admiration for the hurricane and its overwhelming power. I surely have the feeling that those people who refuse to evacuate their homes are considered heretics. They are not allowed to coherently describe their position in the media. But they have a rather good basis for their position, too.

Is this hurricane unprecedented? Well, it's a hurricane that comes late in the season so it may bring snow, too. (Some sources talk about an unprecedented interplay between a hurricane and some Arctic air, and so on, but they haven't really done research whether this interplay is unprecedented, either.) Also, it will manage to land in New Jersey which is pretty far from the equator and the most typical places where hurricanes land if they land at all. Also, this hurricane is targeting New Jersey, nearby places, and perhaps New York. The City is even more inhabited than New Orleans and the proper targeting is what matters for the relevance of a hurricane, indeed.

However, none of these features is really unprecedented.

Sorry, this was the Twitter #Sandy real-time timeline brought to you by TRF. I hope that we haven't lost you.

Even when you restrict your attention to hurricanes affecting New Jersey, you may find many stories in the book linked at the top or in this summary. The web page offers you 21 hurricanes between 1821 and 2011 that affected New Jersey. Irene 2011 was a hurricane that landed in New Jersey – still, most people already forgot whether it was lethal or not – but it wasn't the first hurricane with this "citizenship". On September 16th, 1903, a borderline hurricane landed near Atlantic City. Its main effect could be summarized as four inches of rainfall. Some significant hurricanes affected New Jersey in 1821, 1878, 1889, the history is quite nontrivial.

And I have focused on proud New Jersey hurricanes. If we looked elsewhere, we could enumerate tons of other hurricanes, such as the 1960 Hurricane Donna that has improved Manhattan in this way:

What about late-season hurricanes in New Jersey? Sandy must be the first one, right? Well, Hurricane Hazel landed on October 15th, 1954. And you may find much later ones. On December 2nd and 3rd, 1925, a hurricane brought 70 mph winds to Atlantic City. So calling Sandy "unprecedented" means to be ignorant about the history, sometimes very recent history. There's nothing unprecedented about hurricanes landing in New Jersey, not even about the subset that lands in October.

The journalists like to hype things because it brings them profit. Every time the end of the world arrives on the following morning, lots of newspapers are sold. But maybe they also partly want to "help the nation" and by making the stories more dramatic, they make the people more disciplined. I have some understanding for all these things. But I would be much happier to see something different as well – journalists as impartial messengers who actually describe what is happening, how people respond, and what their reasons are. A large fraction of the citizens are skeptical about the "catastrophic predictions" and many of them have decided not to evacuate their homes for reasons that are often rather sound. It would be nice if the journalists sometimes behaved as journalists in a free society – which means journalists who report and allow the readers and viewers to decide – and they were not trying to pretend that all these people are uneducated hacks and criminals and that the journalists' main holy duty is to strengthen the influence of the "authorities".

A hurricane lands somewhere in the U.S. almost every year and while it's good when the public cooperates with its representatives, it's simply unreasonable to consider all such situations "exceptional states of war" equivalent to "martial law" because we would be living under such "martial law" most of our lives (hurricanes are not the only reasons that may spark such "exceptional" measures).

I am not claiming that Sandy must turn out to be another non-event; I don't really know. The wind are strong enough so that you don't want to walk in the middle of your town. But it's rather plausible that it will be another non-event and it's wrong for the society to pretend it is not plausible, not even if this game is supposed to help a "good cause".

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