Before getting into the heart of this blog post, I need to mention that there is an increasing likelihood that tomorrow could be the winning date for the First Snowfall Contest. The latest weather data indicates that an “inch or so” is likely in much of the area tomorrow. Earlier this morning I was forecasting a slight chance that we could get up to an inch. I would put the odds closer to 50/50 now. So if you predicted November 6th for the First Snowfall Contest, keep your fingers crossed and you might be one of the big winners of the R-store gift cards. Keep checking in with StormTrack9, Newsline9, and Wake-up Wisconsin to find out if we will have our winning snowfall date on Tuesday.
Note: The following is an article I had written already on Tuesday of last week, just one day after Sandy hit the east coast. I didn’t want to publish it right away due to the recovery efforts underway. I figured people did not want to think about infrastructure resilience so soon after the storm struck. I see Newscientist has now come out with an article along the same lines, so I assume it is now ok for this article as well.
How do you prepare for a “black swan” event? You don’t. By definition, a highly improbable event is the last thing anyone prepares for.
Was “Superstorm Sandy” a black swan event? I would say maybe. Hurricane and storm surge potentials along the east coast have been modeled many times over. It is certainly true that Sandy brought together some unlikely scenarios, such as a hurricane being absorbed into a Nor’easter type storm, coming in at high tide, and under a full moon, but risk analysts and insurance companies had run through the scenario because hurricanes have struck New York/New Jersey in the past. Once an area is hit by a bad storm, and sets a new record for storm surge (or any other weather parameter) risk analysts survey the impacts and then model what would happen if a bigger storm surge hit in the future.
One of the reasons New York officials were confident in ordering evacuations is because they knew what effects would happen during a big storm surge and what areas would be hardest hit. Things such as the flooding of LaGuardia airport were certain to occur. The airport flooded as far back as 1950 from a regular Nor’Easter that produced winds up 62 mph, not that much less than Sandy, which had 70 to 80 mph gusts.
So why was there so much damage (in New Jersey) and flooding (in New York) when the effects of a large storm were well known? Because hardly anybody prepares for the most extreme weather events. It is not just New York or New Jersey, it is very similar here in Wisconsin. In Wausau, we are not prepared for an F5 tornado. If an F5 tornado strikes Wausau, people will die. It could be me. It is sad, but it is the reality. We are probably not even well prepared for an F3 tornado (from an infrastructure standpoint). The Merrill tornado last year was only a weak F3 and it wiped out an entire neighborhood. In the sense that no one died during that tornado, citizens of Merrill were “prepared”. The infrastructure was not. Residential and commercial structures were heavily damaged. Power and communication lines didn’t stand a chance. If an F5 tornado struck Wausau, there would be utter devastation. Power and wire/cable-based communication would be almost completely knocked out (for days). Most houses would be wiped away. The only buildings left standing might be a couple of the older designated nuclear fallout shelters, the county courthouse, and maybe a few of the other brick/steel buildings. For most people, the only hope would be underground shelters, like a basement. So why don’t we prepare better?
It is a cost/benefit analysis. The chance of an F5 tornado striking the heart of the city is low enough that we don’t see the need to spend money “hardening” the infrastructure. If we wanted the power to remain on after an F5 tornado, then we should be spending a lot of money (right now) to bury ALL of our power lines (ditto for cable lines). By the way, I have contacted WPS to get their opinion on burying more powerlines, so hopefully I will have some additional information later this week.
If we wanted all the houses to remain standing then we should pass a building code that all homes need be made of steel with specially designed safe areas in all the basements. We could even trim the urban trees to make them less likely to be blown over. We don’t do this because it costs too much money and the risk is low. More of our “assets” are put into warning systems and emergency services so that people can be warned ahead of time and so that we can (hopefully) get to the disaster scene quickly afterward to save people.
The same calculations are made in other parts of the country. There is no question that cities on the New Jersey shore and various boardwalks would be heavily damaged if a strong hurricane (with a high storm surge) hit. It was not a surprise that some subways in New York were flooded/closed when the water flowed into lower Manhattan. The subways are not built to keep water out. There is no way to seal them during an impending storm. The best that can be done is to pump the water out as quickly as possible after a storm hits. About the only pro-active thing that could be done (for the future) is build higher sea-walls (or build big dikes – such as in the Netherlands), but these would be very expensive undertakings. Storms such as Sandy do not happen very often, so how would one justify spending so much money? Maybe it would be more cost effective just to improve evacuations and thus minimize the loss of life. Damage from flooding would be very hard to minimize in New York. Much of the infrastructure is below sea level. The area is large. The city cannot be moved. In New Jersey, the boardwalks and houses near the sea will be rebuilt, knowing full well that another storm in the future could wash it all away again. People place a high value on living and playing by the ocean, and ultimately the risks are low.
In the end, even though it is the beginning of the 21st century, we are all still at the mercy of the weather. Many improvements in infrastructure and emergency services have been made, but there are legacy effects that make it nearly impossible to prevent widespread damage in vulnerable areas when an extreme storm hits. I expect we will continue to improve services and structures as the years go by, and in the far future we might be able to control the weather to some extent, but until that point be sure to heed the warnings and save your life.
Have a fine Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under Flooding, Hurricanes, Natural Disasters, Severe Weather, Storms, Weather NEws, Weather Safety
This post was written by jloew on November 5, 2012