Overreacting to Irene?

Lots of people evacuated who could just as well have stayed home.  Irene was not the apocalypse for which  Bloomberg, Christie, and the other elected officials who pulled out all the stops prepared.  Were they wrong?  In a world without the second law of thermodynamics, in which time can be run back and forth, obviously they were.  And if you curse every year you spend money on life insurance and don’t die, similarly.  But it looks from here as though the various governments did the right thing given the information they had when they had to commit to a plan. The National Hurricane Center (that commie nest of waste, fraud and abuse that rips tax dollars from your pocket to fly airplanes into storms and pay lazy bureaucrats to stare at radar screens and crunch pointyhead computer models: Eric Cantor, where are you when we need this abuse shut down! but I digress, pant pant pant) churned out useful forecasts 24/7, and the mayors and governors used the best science available to manage a situation with large and robust uncertainty.

Will Rogers said, “It’s easy to make money in stocks!  First, buy some stock.  If it goes up, sell.  If it don’t go up, don’t buy it!”  Will Rogers was a comedian on purpose; Rick Perry and Ron Paul only inadvertently.  In the real world,  four storms that don’t peg the needle in the event, out of five with a working FEMA, evacuations, and subway shutdowns, is probably a good overall record, and observing one of the four says nothing about the policy.  Consider the alternative.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

10 thoughts on “Overreacting to Irene?”

  1. Agree totally. If you wait until you know it’s a disaster to order the evac., then it’s too freakin’ late.

  2. 20 20 hindsight is always a good thing. I live in Queensland Australia where we are still being subjected to the claims and counter claims on the rights or wrongs of the managers of Wivenhoe dam that may or may not have contributed to the billions of dollars of damage caused by the flood. However it is always a good thing to extract political mileage out of any thing !!!!

  3. Living my adult life in a beach town on the Atlantic coast I developed a hurricane routine that served me well: Stock up on food, water, booze, candles and a good book. Put the trash cans inside and move the car out from under trees. Don’t go out to the beach to watch the waves. If in the middle of all the wind and rain it gets real quiet and the sun comes out don’t go outside to look at it. To be honest I did do that once and it was quite beautiful.

    In my expierience the only people who got in trouble staying home were folks on the ocean front or on low lying ground in danger of flooding. But then of course you only have to get killed once and after that you’ll never hear the end of it.

    But I will never forget the time when I was 19 and stayed in the shop to get caught up on some work (hey who’s afraid of a little hurricane?) and at the height of the storm I stepped outside and saw breaking waves coming down the street. When that ocean comes there is nothing that will stop it. It didn’t come up to where I was but it sure gave me a healthy respect. Like I said, get out of low lying areas.

  4. Here in my part of New Jersey, the storm was kind of a nothingburger in terms of wind and fury. No more branches down than we get during a good summer thunderstorm. However, the amount of water that got pushed around was astounding. Everything got quietly flooded, and remains flooded.

    Had this storm taken a slightly different path, stayed at sea a little longer, and hit land farther north as a Cat 2, it would have been a huge disaster. This was quite a near miss, and I can’t fault the actions that were taken, even if they appear out of proportion with the wisdom of hindsight.

  5. I should add “quite a near miss in my part of the world.” I know there are many people for whom this was most certainly not a miss.

  6. My town in vermont got flooded this spring, and people were all over the city government for not issuing flood-prep and evacuation orders until it was too late. So this time they jumped the gun and ordered evacuations early, based on forecasts. No one complained. The water crested higher than this spring (and higher than any flood on record except for 1927) so they got it right. Now all we have to worry about is the republicans in congress arguing that disaster repair costs too much.

  7. When potential disasters give us sufficient warning to take cover, the only rational thing to do is to take cover. It’s possible (as technology improves) that our early warning systems will give better predictions. Witness the tsunami warning system in the Pacific Ocean. In 1964, it did not exist: after the Good Friday Anchorage quake the only reasonable response for residents in low-lying coastal areas of Hawaii was to move to higher ground.

    As it happened, that quake did not generate a tsunami. But getting up and getting in the car and going to higher ground was still the only reasonable response to the alert. A similar quake today would not generate a warning for Hawaii, because we have a better monitoring system in place.

    Predicting the track of a hurricane is an error-prone process. There was no way to know on Friday (or even Saturday) that Irene was going to fizzle rather than clobber New York City. The only reasonable response for people in harm’s way was to get out. I understand that there is the problem of the boy who cried wolf. Make too many prediction errors, and people start ignoring the forecasts. I guess Santayana was right: if we forget history, we will repeat it.

  8. It’s prudent to prepare for the worst.

    Here in CT, it wasn’t a particularly deadly event, but something like half the state lost power and it’s going to take a while to restore it, even with crews brought in from all over the country to boost CL&P’s line crews.

  9. And with the further advantage of 20-20 hindsight as of Aug. 30, it appears that the politicians made all the right calls, at least to my eyes. Like Katrina, the realization of damage and danger occurred after the storm passed, not during. So now, besides the inconvenience of millions without power and trains not running because of fallen trees, we have 40 deaths, and a very dangerous aftermath in Vermont of all places, due to flooding. Things might have been just as bad with respect to New Jersey flooding if not for the determination of the Governor to remove people from harm’s way. Give credit where it’s due.

Comments are closed.