The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Archive for October 2012

Bigger Than a Hurricane

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Why Do TV News Readers Seem so Happy About a Superstorm?

There was a crowd waiting to be let in Trader Joe’s supermarket on 14th Street in Manhattan. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if the management built the line to promote the trendy store’s popularity, every supermarket in the neighborhood was crowded by people stocking up in advance of Hurricane Sandy.

Under the gentle prodding of Fox, CNN, ABC and others, my neighbors in New York have been infected by mass hysteria.

I was stunned when I went out early this morning and saw a huge crowd outside the neighborhood Trader Joe’s, the upscale grocery store with a frontier trading-post motif of rough wooden floors and shelving. I was doubly stunned when the people waiting happily told me they were waiting to get into the overcrowded store.

All of the five or six supermarkets that are in walking distance were mobbed yesterday and again today with people preparing for Hurricane Sandy. This happens with every stormy weather forecast, whether they call it the Storm of the Century, the Perfect Storm, Frankenstorm, or my favorite, Superstorm.

I don’t want to minimize the danger of this storm. This is a bad one, aiming now at the southern half of the New Jersey Coast. It’s a big, unusual storm. The full description Sunday afternoon by the National Weather Service is ghastly. If anything, the statistical weather forecasting models have been underestimating the power of the center of the storm. They are largely on target about the path.

Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg did the right thing by halting the subways, trains and buses tonight. A huge number of people here use mass transit, and there could be big problems.

But the panic is a little absurd in Manhattan. It mocks what might happen along the shore, and in places where the power lines are all woven through the trees. We’re an extraordinary place. We don’t live in a vulnerable landscape. None of those Trader Joe’s customers are going to need rescuing from the rooftops, or spend days stranded without heat or light.

We are not below sea level behind levees built a century ago, we are not on the beach or worse the outer sand bars or in a community that suffers regular tidal flooding. When trees fall, they may hit a parked car, but they won’t come crashing through the bedroom in a tangle of power lines.

A more realistic danger may be the junk people have on the roofs, terraces and fire escapes, not to mention the construction debris on top of the ubiquitous scaffolds.

Despite our relative safety, the inhabitants of this center of finance and the media — educated, well-to-do, often powerful — are so concerned with losing their supplies of bottled water that they waste hours on long lines outside a trendy market.

If they want a related event to worry about, how about global warming? The potential for a flood in Manhattan is far greater if the climate science — based on the same statistical techniques as the weather forecasting — is anywhere close to accurate.

A few hours spent trying to untangle the reporting in the final week of the political campaign is worth way more than stocking up on favorite goodies at the supermarket. Quite a few candidates for national office think that global warming is a fake. They think the correct energy policy is to intensify our production and consumption of fossil fuel. The consequences are likely a lot more serious than not having milk for your home-brewed latte.

But no matter what happens after the hurricane hits the land, there are bigger, more dangerous issues that are going to be decided a week from Tuesday.

Written by theunbiasedeye

October 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm