Pre-Irene uncertainty and an old saw


Last week, the big question for lots of Islanders was, What shall we do with the boat? There were other questions, naturally, but the boat question is more interesting than, What shall we do with the lawn chairs?

Google is the master of algorithms and answers, so I Googled, If I spend Saturday taking care of the boat, will my beloved take care of the garden gnome and the flamingo? (Flamingos can become missiles in hurricane force wind.) Google returned only one answer, That depends.

The weather folk are on the defensive this week, because they had warned about Irene for days and days, telling us to buy batteries and fill the bathtub with water. In the event, Irene made a big mess up and down the coast, but after battering North Carolina as a hurricane, the storm arrived in New York as a tropical storm and made a Godawful mess inland, especially in Vermont. In New England, fallen trees and swollen rivers were Irene’s main legacy.

Among the greatest sufferers were the television news reporters who began the long pre-Irene siege in Home Depot next to lineups of generators and plywood but ended up in the rain and the wind on surf-tortured beaches. I wonder if these lovely people in their ball caps and slickers ever say to their producers, “People know what the ocean looks like when it’s stirred up, shingles peeling from roofs are not drama, and I look like a fool wavering around in a 50-knot wind.”

Television coverage, for the most part, repeated the same information endlessly, and one could detect a mild resistance to the idea that the storm’s intensity declined as it moved north. Gauging the hurricane’s intensity is a problem for the meteorologists, but not for TV news people. For the latter, it’s always a devastating, history-making storm of paralyzing intensity. Meteorologists can forecast the prospective storm track pretty well, although any layman, following the NOAA projections, could figure out where the storm was likely to track as the cone of possible routes finally narrowed and the arrival became imminent.

After years of work on their computer models, trying to include and properly value all the variables that affect what cyclonic storms will do, weather forecasters have become better at projecting storm tracks, but modeling intensity remains tough. And, the several models that are in play are constructed differently, so that even if the inputs — temperature, upper level winds, lower level winds, water temperature, barometric pressure, and on and on — were the same, the treatment of those values might vary with the model’s structure. It’s a very great challenge.

As Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal of August 30, about the difference between what Irene was expected to do and what the storm actually did, “All this sounds like it could have been forecast in advance, but who knows. And perhaps it’s just as well to be reminded that weather, like climate, is affected by a countless number of variables that seem obvious in retrospect but are inherently unpredictable. What is predictable, however, is our bias toward alarm. Nobody wants another Katrina. And, as they say about war, so too about hurricanes: policy makers tend to fight the last one.”

So, on the Vineyard, the prudent boat owner, if he acted on the pre-Irene Thursday may have headed for the nearest hurricane hole — someplace nearly landlocked, small with little fetch so that a rolling sea could not build, with good holding ground and few other craft nearby to slip their moorings and careen through the fleet. He would have trussed up the sails, added one or two extra sturdy mooring pennants, tied down everything that might blow off the deck, and checked to be sure the insurance was paid up.

The same owner, on pre-Irene Saturday might have stayed on his own reliable mooring in Vineyard Haven because it seemed likely the wind would be from the southerly quadrants, and Vineyard Haven does just fine when the wind has some south in it.

And after Irene, our friend would find his boat unmolested in the serene hurricane hole, and the boats kept at home by their owners unmolested on their own moorings. The gnome and the flamingo would not have taken flight.

And, those who stayed at home would condescend to those who fled, using the old saw, “Well, you know what they say, better safe than sorry.”