My neighborhood of New York City may remain without power for a few more days, but fortunately visible signs of damage are limited — none of the widespread destruction found along the immediate coast of the city and of nearby communities, where the sea rose and swallowed up land that had not seen salt water in many decades, even centuries. Many trees are down, and countless houses and businesses are wiped out by the sea’s wrath, even entire beach communities. The numbers of lost homes are surely in the thousands, if not more, with 100 houses alone destroyed in a runaway fire in the neighborhood of Breezy Point, cut off from firefighters by the storm’s high water.
Unfortunately, many people along the coast, lulled into complacency by the fact that last year’s Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Irene was a bit less furious along the coast than was forecast, decided not to evacuate. Unfortunately indeed, because the forecast for Hurricane Sandy was worse than for Irene, and this time, there was no lucky break to make the reality of the storm significantly less severe than the worst-case prediction. I myself know of households who decided to evacuate at the last minute and almost didn’t make it out alive, and others who rode out the storm and found themselves in considerable danger. That so many people remained in harm’s way required “first responders”, as they are termed here, mainly members of the police and fire departments, to make many rescues, quite a few of which wouldn’t have been necessary had people heeded the warnings. For risking their lives to save so many others, the first responders are widely and justifiably hailed as heroes.
Also deserving of high praise, in my view, are some of the leading politicians and other civic leaders in our region’s states and cities. There are quite of few of them whom I don’t agree with politically and whom I personally don’t like very much, but on the whole they all seem very smart. And in this case they understood the risks, took them seriously, and made prudent decisions to order evacuations of areas in danger and to protect public property. They deserve a lot of credit for their non-nonsense approach.
But I feel that there’s an important story that the press is almost ignoring. There’s another group of people, little-mentioned in the media, who probably saved more lives and property than anyone else. I refer to the experts at the National Hurricane Center (NHC), and more generally the various branches of the National Weather Service (NWS) and its parent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
As I already suggested in my post from Monday, we should view the forecast of Hurricane Sandy’s sudden turn toward the coast of New Jersey, and its transformation from a minor category 1 hurricane into an uncategorizable (but categorical) monster, as a stunning achievement — a historic success of scientific research. Actually it appears to be several stunning accomplishments in one: the forecast of the unusual track; the forecast of the unusual increase in strength and size; the forecast of a powerful blizzard in the mountains of West Virginia and other nearby states; and the forecast of the extremely high storm surge along Long Island, northern New Jersey and New York Harbor that would prove to be some of the most damaging elements of the storm. These forecasts were all of highly complex and interrelated phenomena, and very challenging even for the most advanced scientific methods.
And what amazes me is that the forecasters did this successfully despite never having observed a storm of this type before.
This, of course, is how science is supposed to work, when it is at its best. From studies of simpler examples, focusing on one or two elements at a time, scientists guess equations that allow rudimentary predictions of complex phenomena such as fluids (i.e. gasses and liquids) in general, weather more specifically and hurricanes in particular. Over time, looking at predictions that have succeeded and others that have failed, they improve the equations, accounting for more and more of the underlying processes. And finally the equations are good enough that they work most of the time; anyone who follows hurricane forecasting knows that the paths of hurricanes are much more reliably predicted than they were even fifteen years ago.
Yet when the day comes that an unusual combination of events arises — a hurricane moving north, a blocking air pattern to the east, a strong front to the west, an upper level disturbance moving south, etc. — and the equations respond by predicting a storm of unprecedented power on an extraordinary track, then even the bravest of scientists has to wonder: have the equations gone mad? Have they been asked to predict the future in an extreme situation where they cannot be trusted?
I’m sure the experts were nervous about their forecast. But as time went on and all of the different computer models, which are similar in their science but differ in their details, gave more or less the same prediction, they appeared to become more and more confident. And they got it basically right.
Imagine, for a moment, that no one had invested over the last few decades in hurricane forecasting… that government-funded long-term research was viewed as a waste of money, and that the only funding provided was for research that was likely to lead to near-term economic benefit. Well, none of those predictions would have been there for us last weekend. On Monday, a breezy, raw, rainy fall morning, we all would have gone to work with no special worries… until we headed home for the evening rush hour. And then we would have found ourselves stuck on the roads by the tens of thousands in traffic jams, unable to get home, as trees fell and rivers flooded, highways became impassable, electricity went out, subway trains were stopped by rising water, and heaven knows what else. As the evening high tide arrived in New York and Connecticut, nine feet above normal, and as the storm’s worst rains and winds pounded the New Jersey Coast, many people would have been trapped, and the number of trains, planes, boats, buses, cars, power plants, homes and businesses that would have been unprotected against water damage would have been enormously higher than it was.
This nightmare isn’t fiction; it’s history. Something much like it did happen in 1938, in the Long Island Express hurricane, though fortunately in a somewhat less populated area. It didn’t happen this time, because we had many days of warning. We were told exactly what to worry about — that there would be many hours of strong winds and rain, tremendous tree damage, flooding along the coast, feet of snow inland. In New York City we were warned how high the high tide might be: 6 to 11 feet above normal. (The actual storm surge was nine feet in New York Harbor, a total tide of nearly 14 feet above low water, easily enough to flood the subway and car tunnels and many streets along the waterfront.) Thanks to these warnings, people were evacuated from danger zones, trains were moved to high ground, highways that often flood were closed, and resources that were needed for cleanup, especially for restoration of power, were brought into position to be ready as soon as the storm was over. Just imagine the death and damage we might be reading about today, had this not happened.
All the talk in the media is about the 20 or 30 billion dollars that repairs from this storm might cost. But even though it can’t be easily estimated, shouldn’t there be some discussion of the additional billions, perhaps tens of billions, that the National Hurricane Center saved this country in reduced damage and in reduced loss of productivity… significantly more money than was spent on the entire NOAA budget this year? And then there are the lives saved. Those of us who, thanks to the forecast, chose to evacuate, buy extra food and medicine, stay home from work, put off travel, keep our kids home, invite our elderly relatives to stay, and so forth ought all to send a heartfelt thank you note to the forecasters and to all the people who made those forecasts possible — everyone from the Hurricane Hunter aviators who fly into hurricanes like Sandy to collect the best possible data about these storms to the no-longer-young scientists who spent decades patiently trying to understand what makes these storms tick. They deserve to be celebrated for what they are: heroes.