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August 29, 2011 / Dave Gorham

Irene: Why Bloomberg Shouldn't Be Second-Guessed

I support the Mayor of New York City’s decision to nearly shut down the city (The City) prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irene. Even though the storm weakened significantly before reaching the city, even though Monday morning QBs are saying the storm was over-hyped, even though pre-landfall news coverage by the Northeast-centric Mainstream News Media covered the approaching storm like it was the most important storm of all time. Given the situation, it was the right call. It was the only call. And, given that today is the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it’s easy to make comparisons to the evacuation order given by the New Orleans mayor, just 24 hours prior to landfall. (We haven’t forgotten the images and the headlines following Katrina, have we?)

Today's New York Times.com. Image: nytimes.com

Can you imagine the headlines today if the mayor failed to take the needed precautions and the hurricane maintained its earlier strength (I’m assuming, given the situation, that strengthening of the storm would’ve been highly unlikely)? “MTA Bus Careens off Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as Hurricane Irene Winds Unexpectedly Batter The City,” or “Subway Cars Full of Times Square Revelers Floods – Rescuers Must Wait for Ravaging Storm to Pass,” or “Ferry Capsizes as Stronger-Than-Expected Irene Slams Lower Manhattan.” Death and destruction in favor of a couple of days of comparatively mild inconvenience? I don’t think so.

Like the rest of us, I’ve been watching the news over the past few days. As we know, it’s been dominated by coverage of Hurricane Irene. Unfortunately there are always too many who feel the authorities over-reacted, closed down too much and went too far. After all, Irene was barely a hurricane when it reached The City.

This isn’t 1970 any more. We live in an enlightened age when we have not only technology to inform us, but experience to guide us. Each storm provides “do and don’t” lessons so that when (not if) the next one arrives we are better prepared. Additionally, each forecast is better than the previous so that forecasters can provide more accurate details to those who have to make the types of decisions Mayor Bloomberg had to make in the days and hours before Irene arrived. Yet the hurricane forecast is not without its faults.

Today's Wall Street Journal online. Image: WSJ

Tropical meteorology is so much better than it was even just a few years ago. Though storm intensity forecasting is still tricky, track forecasting has improved smartly. In the days before satellites, hurricane forecasting was sketchy at best. Storm detection, strength and position was based primarily on observations from the few ships that may or may not have been close to the storm. And let’s not forget that the cause of the worst natural disaster in this country’s history was a hurricane that surprised the residents of Galveston Island in 1900. In Irene’s case, like every storm, the forecast relied on accurately predicting the ebb and flow of broad pressure systems, sea surface temperatures, and tropospheric winds — all of which are estimated by computer modeling systems. The great unknown for Irene however, was dry air entrainment — or, the introduction of dry air into a tropical storm (anybody remember last month’s Hurricane Don?). Hurricanes feed off the warm energy and humidity of ocean waters. The opposite of that, dry and comparatively cool air, can cause a hurricane to rapidly fall apart. With Irene’s track forecast along the U.S. coastline, how much dry air entrainment would there be? A slight shift east or west in the track forecast would’ve changed many factors of the storm — from dramatically weaker to dramatically stronger. Are we to put 100% of our destiny in the hands of computers and the immensely complex modeling programs used to drive the forecasts? Saddle that with the necessary lead-time to begin evacuations — both voluntary and mandatory — and it’s not hard to imagine the depths of the stress and the complexity of the decision-making process for Mayor Bloomberg.

The graph shows the decreasing error rate of hurricane track forecasting from 1970 through 2007 in nautical miles. Not surprising, the greatest error rate lies with the longest forecast - 96 hours (4 days). Notice the blue line indicating 102-hour (5-day) forecasting which only began in 2001. Also note the spike in 2005 - the busiest Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history. Image: NHC via Wikipedia

Sometimes we have to take a deep breath and acknowledge that things are, occasionally, beyond our control. Sometimes there are situations where questions remain. Sometimes, hard as we try, the details remain just a little out of focus. Sometimes things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the wrong decisions can kill people.

Other hurricanes have affected New York, including the 1938 New England Hurricane, 1955’s Hurricane Diane, 1972’s Hurricane Agnes with its odd beginnings over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, 1985’s Hurricane Gloria, Hurricane Floyd in 1999, as well as Isabel (2003) and Ernesto (2006) which were both downgraded to tropical storms and had moved inland prior to reaching New York. Nor’easters, too, have certainly battered New York with the strength of hurricanes but we’ll save that story for another day.

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One Comment

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  1. Fred Rogers / Aug 29 2011 8:14 PM

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