Copyright 2011 by John T. Reed
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When the Northeast had its earthquake last week, I posted a Facebook item that they were making too big a deal of a 5.8 quake—and also unprepared, compared to the West Coast, for a real quake.
Since then, the Northeast has had Hurricane Irene. A category 4, no, 3, no, wait, 2, no, actually 1 storm.
Irene killed a number of people. It was serious, not like a 5.8 quake.
However, the TV coverage was ridiculous.
• Rain does not photograph well. Video of rain is boring. Videos of some idiot TV announcer who does not have enough sense to get in out of the rain—and off the damned barrier island—are stupid.
• Wind is interesting in a hurricane if you can see it bending trees way over or ripping roofs or siding off. Otherwise, wind is boring and not telegenic. Until you get the trees roofs videos, don’t show us video of wind.
• Waves are fractals and as such video of waves does not show hurricane force. If you seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. If the wave destroys something on the shore or a pier, show it. Otherwise, record over the tape of waves hitting the beach. They just look like normal waves on TV.
• Video of nothing happening because the hurricane has not yet arrived or of a reporter standing in the eye as it passes over are unbelievably boring. Video of normally deserted but crowded venues like casinos or Times Square is mildly interesing, for maybe 60 seconds.
• Video of politicians and non-meteorologist reporters talking about hurricanes is annoying. They both are lousy actors and we are watching them trying to pretend they are concerned, sad, happy, and all that. They should keep their day jobs reciting facts in the case of the reporters. The politicians should resign, repent, and do community service that does not involve decision making for the rest of their lives. Also, politicians and media have lost about all of their credibility. So if you really want citizens to believe they should take precautions or evacuate, you should put people who are trusted by the public on TV, not a pack of liars. Meteorologists, scientists, insurance experts, first responders, and so on.
• The notion that you cannot give too many warnings and take too many precautions in such situations is absolutely false. First, there is the “boy who cried wolf” problem. Every time we might have a serious hurricane, politicians and media cry wolf. Every time the storm in question is less than was warned, the stage is set for people to ignore the warnings when the real thing comes.
It is good that modern science allows us to predict hurricane force, damage, direction and all that better than ever. Thousands died in past hurricanes because of the lack of such knowledge. But crying wolf must stop. Just present the information as accurately as possible. Do not hype the damned storm. Lying to the public for their own good—a common habit of politicians and media—is not excusable as an abundance of caution. It is crying wolf and crying wolf eventually gets people eaten by wolves literally and metaphorically speaking.
In my discussion of earthquake risk, I said in Facebook and in my real estate investment newsletter that red tag risk can be worse than earthquake risk. Earthquakes rarely total a building or structure. But red tags, which condemn a building for lack of adequate earthquake strength, total the building every time. And they are not covered by earthquake insurance.
In the Irene build up, politicians took it upon themselves to red tag the entire Eastern Seaboard. That costs millions. And it’s not covered by flood insurance. It was a factor in the fiction book and movie Jaws. The fictional seashore resort of Amity Island had a shark problem, but the local officials tried to cover it up to avoid hurting the tourist trade. They did not want to red tag Amity Island during the all-too-brief summer season because of the millions of dollars of financial loss that would result.
Real world officials have been red-tagging the crap out of the Eastern Seaboard—perhaps to prove they are not the Amity Island villain types.
But red tagging the entire Eastern Seaboard costs zillions in lost tourist trade. Am I saying the officials should have covered up Irene? No, but they need to be careful not to exaggerate or over evacuate or evacuate too soon.
Many would say lives are more important than money. It’s not that simple. Lives are actually worth a finite dollar amount. You can reverse engineer it by studying how much we spend on car safety, airline safety, medical care, and so on. There are lots of studies that specify how much dollar value we place on human lives in the 21st century. Furthermore, the lost hundreds of millions of tourist dollars can themselves cause deaths when they hurt emergency medical services and local hospital care. For example, maybe a poor summer financially results in delaying the local hospital getting a new life-saving machine for a year or two. During that period, local people will die for the lack of that machine.
Time is money. Lives are money. Lack of money costs lives after a point.
As with crying wolf, there is no “if you err, err on the side of life saving caution” rule in warning about natural disasters. The rule is don’t err, don’t exaggerate, don’t downplay. Just be accurate.
Here in CA, they are trying to predict earthquakes. But on a couple of occasions, they issued warnings and no quake occurred. That was a temporary red tagging and it costs millions unnecessarily because of people staying away or getting away. Issuing earthquake warnings when the science is still in its infancy is extremely controversial from an economic standpoint. Hurricane forecasting is far better understood, but the hype by media and politicians is not supported by Hurricane science.
When I was in grad school in Boston, we had a heavy snowfall once. The governor overreacted and banned all driving because the snow was so bad. But when the sun came out, and the normal cars and trucks did not, it was observed that one of the main ways the streets are cleared is by cars running over the snow and ice when the temperature is above freezing. Because of the driving ban, that did not happen and every single flake of snow had to be removed by city plows. Millions of dollars of normal business were lost.
• Set the example. The government and media told citizens to evacuate, but then the government officials, like mayors, and reporters, stayed.
Set the example, idiots. Also, the fact that the mayors and media did not evacuate generally suggests that it was not so bad as they were telling us.
There is an implication that the mayors and media who stay are our heroes. Bullshit! The order was to evacuate. So evacuate. Media think they are privileged characters. They are not. I am one of them. If I was a mayor or media guy I would not stay in a barrier island that had been ordered evacuated—for the obvious reason. What am I supposed to do, risk death so I can get my face on TV for 60 seconds? See ya.
If it’s dangerous enough to issue the order, it’s dangerous enough to obey the order. The media bosses ought to order their people to comply with all general evacuations orders without hesitation or exception. They are risking the lives of their employees for ratings. That is an outrage.
When I wrote about the recent hurricane, I noted that I have lived more than half my life in CA and have the usual Californian experience with earthquakes. I lived the other part of my life on the Eastern Seaboard.
By the way, how come only the East has a “Seaboard?” Why is there no northern Seaboard in the Great Lakes states? No Western Seaboard for CA, OR, WA, and AK? And no Southern Seaboard for the Gulf states.
When I was about 2 years old, we moved to Wildwood-by-the-Sea, NJ. I lived there year-round until I was almost 11. I worked in June and July of 1968 as a singles bar bartender in Sea Isle City, NJ, a barrier island like Wildwood. I was stationed at Fort Monmouth NJ twice as an Army officer. (If you zoom out a little from that link you can see how close it is to the ocean.) Fort Monmouth is a few miles from the ocean in the part of New Jersey than sticks out into the ocean within sight of New York City. And I generally lived in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia which are about 70 miles from the ocean and feel the hurricane,s albeit mostly as severe rain and wind storms, not like being on the coast.
I had two “very scary when you think back on it” experiences in Wildwood during hurricanes when I was a little kid.
In one, when I must have been about seven or eight, my dad had heard that surf fishing was great during hurricanes. He loved that sort of contrarian stuff. He also tried to cool the house on hot days by blowing the fan out the window instead of in. He said that was better for cooling because it pulled the cool air in from outside on the other side of the house. He was wrong about both the surf fishing and the fan.
Anyway, he not only thought the surf fishing would be great, but that I had to be there to see it. So we walked to the water’s edge. Wildwood had enormously wide beaches then. From our house on 4th Avenue in Worth Wildwood, we walked east. When you past the street of houses closest to the ocean, you still had hundreds of yards and many sand dunes to walk up and over. At that part of the beach, no one could see people at the water’s edge. Not even close. The link is to a current satellite map of that area. I do not believe that map or the satellite photo that accompanies it reflects how it was in 1954 when this happened to me. I believe Ocean Avenue was then closest to the water, not John F. Kennedy Blvd as now. And I think thre was about 1,000 feet of sand from the waters edge to the first houses on Ocean Avenue. Now, some houses on the new JFK boulevard are right on the water.
It may sound strange to those who have not lived year round on the ocean, but the width of beaches is fluid and changes from year to year especially after hurricanes. When we drove on Ocean Avenue when I was a kid—the last one with houses before the beach—my mom told us there used to be another street with houses on both sides closer to the ocean but a hurricane had wiped all trace of it off the face of the earth. I expect the nouveau JFK boulevard will suffer that same fate eventually.
Anyway, my dad took me to the water edge and fished. He caught nothing. I remember being scared. The waves were more more ferocious than normal. The sky was angry and threatening. The wind was howling. The beach, which typically had at least a few people on it all the time, was deserted except for us. My dad decided he had enough fishing and we headed back home. When we walked up over the first range of dunes, we discovered that the dry area we had walked over only a half hour or so before was now under water. We thought we were fishing on the beach. Turned out we were fishing on a sand bar—a brand new, tiny island out in the ocean. My dad picked me up and waded through the water which was rough and swirling all around with waves hitting him and the water was up to his chest. Then we found we had only reached another new sand bar, not the main island where we lived, and we again waded through rough, chest-deep-on-a-man water. I did not freak because my dad did not freak—or so I thought. Thinking back on it, he should have freaked. No one could see us there. We would have been long dead by the time my mom got worried and called the Coast Guard. We had no life vests or any of that.
On another occasion, my dad had nothing to do with my almost getting killed my a hurricane. Look at the map of North Wildwood again. The corner of Pine and New Jersey Avenue is on the north cost of Wildwood. About there was a fishing pier when I was a kid. It went out straight northeast into the water about 35 yards. It was simply a boardwalk over the water with a roofed pier with benches at the end. I think it was U-shaped with two parallel boradwalks to the roofed area which was the bottom of the U. I once, as a seven-year-old, instantly caught a flounder on that pier in front of a bunch of men who had been sitting there for hours catching nothing.
On the night when a hurricane was coming, my friends and I were playing on that pier. Where the pier left the shore, there was a large concrete wall underneath the beginning of the boardwalk. We noticed that the very rough waves would come under the boardwalk to the pier and hit the wall hard exploding upward. So we started playing a game where I would be out on the pier watching the big waves go under me. I would time the waves and yell “Now!” My playmates would stand on the first several boardwalk boards just off the concrete wall. When I said “now,” they would jump back just missing the water as it exploded upward between the floor boards of the boardwalk.
After we did this for a while and the waves got even stronger, I noticed that inside the white foam of the wave exploding upward through the floorboards of the boardwalk were several of the boards themselves. They had been ripped off the joists on the left side but not the right. So they fell back into their normal position. I was only about nine or ten, but I was sobered by seeing those boards flying upward and decided we needed to go home—seven blocks away.
The next day we went back there. The pier was gone. That is, the entire pier, including the roofed bench section, the pilings that held it up, and the boardwalk on which I was standing when we were playing, were all totally gone. There was no trace they had ever been there. I do not know how many minutes or hours after I got off it that boardwalk disappeared, but only about 12 or 13 hours elapsed between our play and our return visit.
Very scary sight when we went back the next day.
Real estate investing tip. If the house or other property you are buying requires flood insurance, don’t buy it. And if you are visiting an area for which a flood or hurricane warning has been issued, cancel the trip.
The ocean is extremely powerful and it can erase virtually any man-made structure in an hour or two. That pier where I played had probably been there for fifty years and gone through many hurricanes. That street that my mom said used to exist, but for which absolutely no trace at all could be found, was a normal street with sidewalks, street lights, lawns, and rich people’s houses on 1/4 acre lots on both sides of the street. It was all there one day and all gone the next—without a trace.
Flood insurance is a scam on the American people. Only the government sells food insurance. That’s because flood is not an insurable risk. One definition of an insurable risk is that you cannot have everyone or a large percentage of your policy holders filing claims at the same time. That’s why life insurance does not cover riots or wars. A lot of people pay life insurance premiums; only a few file claims in any given year. That’s an insurable risk. Ditto car insurance and health insurance. When government sells insurance—flood, earthquake, deposit—it is because no one in their right mind would sell it, because if there are any claims there will be a zillion all at once.
America’s water-view rich are ripping off the taxpayers by building and owning properties where there should not be any properties and making the taxpayers pay when that stupidity results is the very predictable flood and hurricane losses.
I am well aware that without flood insurance those properties could not be mortgaged and would fall in value and all that. That is as it should be.
In general, the TV coverage of the hurricane before it arrived was unbelievable. I guess because it was in the area of the NYC and DC studios and media headquarters, they decided the rest of the world and all its events and problems and joyous events had ceased to exist. I look forward to watching the Saturday Wall Street Journal Editorial Report and DVR it. We record it twice to be sure because sometimes they preempt one for “breaking news.” On 8/27/11, they preempted both of them for Shepherd Smith breathlessly interviewing reporters doing their impressions of drowned rats on some Eastern Seaboard street. They covered nothing but Irene for days. And they had virtually nothing to say so they said the same things over and over and over. Stupid.
And it turns out with all that overkill coverage, they still missed the big story. Was there some violent damage from wind and storm surges on the coast? Yes, but less than predicetd by the hypesters.
The real damage was not from the forces we associate with hurricanes—high wind and storm surges. It was from a more mundane source—extraordinary amounts of rain. And it did not occur only on the coast. It also happened relatively far from the coast, inculding in some states that do not even have a coast, like Vermont and Pennsylvania. I do not recall a single mention of that possibility in all the coverage.
All that TV coverage. All those reporters called in from all over the U.S. All those expert interviews. And no cameras pointed at the rivers in Vermont.
I made a comment on your Irene page, but it seemed to "explode" when I hit send/submit. Here is the gist of what I had said:
The Irene "Hurricane" (Tropical Storm) was a sleeper in my location in Natick, Massachusetts, just 15 miles west of Boston. A sleeper, that is, until we emerged after the storm to check on the neighborhood. My property and that of my immediate neighbors was largely untouched, except for the usual sticks and small branches and leaves in the yard. Then we lost power. 200-300 yards up the street is a ridgeline where many older trees (2-3 feet or more in diameter) toppled over towards the latter part of the storm. Many of these trees fell straight across the main (cow path) road and the power lines. We didn't get a whole lot of rain here, but apparently western Mass., New Hampshire, and Vermont did. The wind itself didn't seem so bad, for the most part. The big trees that did come down seemed to have been strategically selected to create the greatest headache for the utility crews. We couldn't drive many places.
Losing power is an inconvenience. You keep your refrigerator closed, but eventually you have to put your food in coolers and make trips for ice. If you know it's going to be a while before power is restored, you might bring your food to a relative's house who has power. We brought our food to a brother-in-law's house, then he lost power. Then we went to my sister's, but her freezer was already full with the food of another friend. Finally, we went to Boston to my in-law's. Ultimately, we had to throw a bunch of food out. Each trip contained 2-3 detours per mile due to downed trees. (So, imagine if we had had an actual hurricane!) Our home telephones also were out, even though we have wire phones in the house. So we had to use cell phones and charge them off the car charger.
The Town of Natick, Mass. successfully sent periodic robo-calls to give people an update on the status of things. Very slick. (My wire phones could receive calls, but could not make calls out. If I give the town my cell phone, they will send these calls there, too.)
So, as to your observation that there was too much coverage on the "Storm of the Century": I agree, but ironically, there was a flip-side to that: The utilities gave little to no information as to when we might get power restored (information that we could actually use). In this age of Twitter-enabled flash-mobs and Arabic revolutions, it is inexcusable that the utilities didn't at least give the towns an idea as to a timetable. I did not need to get a personal update from the utility, but it would have been good to know an approximation, even if conditional on unforeseen problems. No communication at all was not cool. I happen to have worked in information systems at the utility that serves my area, and I am familiar with their G.I.S. (Geographic Information System). If they don't already have a software tool that helps them plan and prioritize power outage restoration (I believe they must), someone could make a bit of money delivering such a tool now. (Next they could create an app that would give you a ballpark on general progress and "ETA" on your personal power restoration.)
Power went out on Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 12:21 PM EDT. Power (for me) was restored at about 2:30 PM on Tuesday, August 30. Really, only about 48 hours (many others are still without power as of Sept. 1). Not too bad. The "not-knowing" made it feel like a week.
- Mike Sullivan
Michael P. Sullivan
25 Morningside Ave.
Natick, MA 01760-5407
John T. Reed
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.