Afternoon Inquisition

AI: The East Coast gets Blown

When I moved to the Northeast Coast of the US, I had no idea that hurricanes (or earthquakes!)  would be something that I needed to be prepared for. But here we are, once again, with a massive storm barreling down on us around Halloween.  Long Island Sound has had its first ever Hurricane Force Wind Warning.  Evacuations have begun, and all mass transit in New York City will stop running later tonight.

I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that the storm coverage is “just hype” to increase retail spending and feed the 24/7 news cycle.  They don’t think the storm will be that bad.  One person even suggested that the storm was being overblown to justify spending on NOAA, the federal agency that tracks hurricanes and other weather.

That one kind of made my mouth hang open a bit, since the amazing NOAA research and satellite imagery we have access to is exactly what allows us to prepare for bad weather and be safe. (By the way, if you didn’t know, there is a proposal to cut ALL of NOAA’s air quality monitoring programs.  If you have asthma, respiratory illnesses, or, you know, breathe air, that program can be literally a life saver.)

It’s impossible for me to hear all of this without thinking of the recent Italian judgement that charged 6 geologists with manslaughter for not correctly predicting the severity of an earthquake.  We have expectations that science can tell us what will happen with predictive models–but are our expectations realistic?  There is always an element of uncertainty in models that predict the future, whether it is atmospheric or geological.

I can’t possibly predict how many ticks will occur from year to year, or when mosquitoes will arrive–but nearly everyone I meet asks me those questions. And is then really annoyed and disgusted with me when I say “I don’t know how many there will be.”  I can give an estimate, but I can’t (and won’t) make a 100% accurate prediction.

The advice I give people can tangentially affect their health, by exposing them to different arthropod-vectored diseases.  I can’t imagine being directly responsible making recommendations that affect millions of lives and lots of property.

Are you on the East Coast? What preparations have you made? Does giving storms silly names matter?  If you were a forecaster and had to make the call, would you have everyone evacuate, even if there was a 50/50 chance you would be wrong?  How can we explain probability to a public that doesn’t like math?

Also, everyone in the path of the storm please stay safe!

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

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bug_girl

Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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23 Comments

  1. I’m pretty stunned by how angry some people get that scientists can’t make absolutely 100% reliable predictions about the future.

    How many people can make that about their own jobs? When I start on a project at work (and I’m not a scientist), I can give an estimate of when I’ll be done with it but there’s loads and loads of variables that can make my estimate inaccurate: Maybe someone will get sick so I have to take over some of their load, maybe I’ve misestimated how complex the project is, maybe the computer network will break down…
    And meteorology and geology are both a lot more complicated than my job.

  2. Because we live in the northeast snowbelt, we always have bottled water, batteries, full gas tanks, and non-perishables. I did, however, pull out my battery-operated radio and ensure that my e-gadgets are fully charged. We have a back-up sump pump and our snow shovels are ready. We’re hopeful it’ll peter out by the time it gets here (Monroe County, NYS), but there will still be high winds, heavy rains, and maybe even tornadoes. I know where my black-out kit and water purification tablets are!! :)

  3. Yeah, I have never understood NOT being prepared.

    BTW, there will be huge environmental consequences to this storm that we won’t be able to fully assess until next spring. The area of the coastline this is ripping up is home to eelgrass beds and offshore fishing hot spots–it’s not known what all the sediment and storming will do to those.

    Coverage of some issues here:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sandy-poses-environmental-threat-to-chesapeake-bay/2012/10/27/64bb8630-1fb2-11e2-9cd5-b55c38388962_story.html

  4. I’m also in upstate NY (Ithaca), and I did all my usual storm voodoo :) – filled the car’s tank, filled the containers to run the generator for the sump pump, started the generator, charged cell phone & gadgets, tested the backup battery power for the cordless phone and internet. More importantly, I decomposted the gutters and cleared the downspouts yesterday.

    This is the only time I wish I didn’t live alone. It would be nice to take shifts running the generator during the night :) But right now, the forecast looks a little better than it did this morning, and at least the temperatures will be above freezing for the duration.

    Yes, the weather poodles like to yap, but I’d rather unnecessary evacuations and school/subway closures than deaths. After Irene, when my parents lost power for long periods and my father was out in crappy weather babysitting the generator, my mother finally exploded and said that they were getting a whole house generator because they were too damned old to be doing that shit :) And they had it installed before the freak snow storm in October.

  5. Earthquakes do happen in the northeast US, though they are not as common as in California.

    From Andrew Dickson White, The Warfare of Science With Theology, Chapter XI: From “The Prince Of The Power Of The Air” To Meteorology —

    In America the earthquake of 1755 was widely ascribed, especially in Massachusetts, to Franklin’s rod. The Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, published a sermon on the subject, and in the appendix expressed the opinion that the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He goes on to argue that “in Boston are more erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.”

  6. Like Elexina, we just did our usual winter prep, only a month early. Water, batteries, soup, radio checked, flashlights checked, phones charged. We don’t have a generator– we live in an apartment building so it’s not really possible. Being in a densely populated neighborhood, we are in a priority area for the power to be restored if it’s lost, so we haven’t had problems with that in the past — always could be a first time. though. Our worry is flooding, as we’re on a first floor and have a basement. Got a wet vac!
    Local French Toast Alert is on Severe (http://www.universalhub.com/french-toast).
    Like you, bug_girl, I’m a federal employee so I’m waiting (hoping) for our Federal Executive Board to do something, soon. This is the annoying part: there is an excellent chance that, logically, I should not go to work tomorrow; not only will public transit be a bear and power may be out in much of the city but the very building I work in is in the projected flood area of the Boston Harbor. Our office is so close to the harbor that, without exaggeration, you could cast a fishing line out of the upper floor windows. Our FEB is notorious for not wanting to take action in a natural emergency. Because the policy of my agency is to comply with the recommendation of the local FEBs, and our FEB refuses to make recommendations, we end up having to go to work. As it is, I’ll probably take a vacation day tomorrow.

  7. I just went for a walk down to the West Haven shore. It’s supposed to be low tide, yet the water levels are going up, and there are actually breaking waves which I hardly ever see. The eery grey sky was a little disturbing.

  8. I’m on the Palisades cliffs essentially a little bit west of the Hudson River, so at my elevation flooding isn’t an issue. However power & wind damage could be. I remember in 2003, a stupid tree limb knocked out power all over the Northeast…I did not like having only a $1.50 & no supplies for that 24 hour (luckily only 24 hour) period.

    Luckily this time I also still have stuff left over from Irene so no scrambling.

  9. Lived on the East Coast in South Florida until December 2010.
    Been through two hurricanes; Andrew (1992) and Wilma (2005). I’m sure those of you here that have lived in Florida know of the circumstances with both storms.
    After having seen destruction caused by them, I see as better to error on the side of caution.

    I think analogies may be a good way to explain probability.
    In today’s society, at least in the US, one can explain probability in some manner by relating to their favorite TV shows, be it “Honey Boo Boo” or “NCIS”.
    How to relate probablity to either, I have no idea.

  10. My son was in Cairns when cyclone Yasi hit 18 months or so ago. To give some perspective of the size of the mother check this

    http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/floodrelief/how-cyclone-yasi-compares-around-the-world/story-fn7ik2te-1225998762870

    The Queensland government got a lot of kudos for early warning and terefore minimal casulaties, so I agree, safety first, always.

    Many medical staff, including my son, elected to carry on working at Cairns Base Hospital, which was in any case a designated evacuation centre. So yeah, we were packing death there for a while.

    In the event the eye hit 100 km south in a less densely populated area, so it could have been a lot worse.

    One death that could have been avoided was the guy who died of carbon monoxide poisoning from his generator, due to inadequate ventilation, so I hope that paticular tragedy never happens again.

  11. I grew up in the middle of the desert in Arizona and we had some really great monsoon storms. Every now and again the flooding would cause washes to completely destroy roads and we’d be cut off from town for a few days (though everyone had at least one four-wheel drive vehicle so it wasn’t that big of a deal … someone always made the trip lol).

    But now I live near downtown, in Phoenix. We have some great storms sometimes but since I’m in the middle of the city, we don’t really get that much.

    The man that owns my apartment complex and the one similar to it a few miles away took care to NOT disturb any of the trees — many of them are old and very deep in the ground, which isn’t really super common in Phoenix anymore. So even the new trees have plenty of cover. And they “storm proof” them twice a year. We hardly have any down trees, even when a major storm comes through. It’s pretty great.

    The worst thing we have to deal with are HABOOBS! (Dust Storms.) But those are only terrible if you have bad asthma and get stuck in the middle of one (or get stuck on the freeway).

    This is why I live in Arizona, hahaha.

    I have a lot of friends on the East coast … I’ll be following the weather news all week!

    1. Having lived in Florida for over 20 years, it’s quite a change to live in Arizona.

      Basically, I exchanged daily (mostly in summer) thunderstorms for dust storms.

      Have you gotten used to driving when dust storms are around? Or is that just something you never get used to and just hope you get home before it hits?

  12. Up here in Maine it’s not supposed to be too bad (at least by local standards, we’re used to severe storms) but the wind is already howling. I have jugs of drinking water filled, working on filling the bathtub for other water needed, have food, have flashlights and batteries, phones and electronics all charged up. Should be fine.

  13. I’m just outside of a Zone A (evacuation zone) in northern Brooklyn. I’m not too worried about flooding, but of loss of power and wind damage. After seeing how strong the winds already were this afternoon, I shut down our desktop computer earlier so I wouldn’t be tempted to start work that I would lose in a power outage. I also spent most of the day cooking so we wouldn’t have to eat only soup :)

    As for the name of the storm, well… I have an ex with the same name, so there have been some amusing moments for me throughout the news coverage.

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