Sunday, February 12, 2006

Column 3: Phony tornado alarms reduce readiness (originally posted September 24, 2005)

The title is a funny line from the Simpsons. It was one of Troy McClure's short films, if I'm not mistaken.
But some of it rings true.

So many times we issue warnings for areas, and often only a fraction of the warned region gets the advertised weather. Does that mean the warning was wrong? If I issue a tornado warning for the City of Winnipeg (because I can't divvy up the city for warning purposes) and a tornado rips through Transcona but the rest of the city is untouched, was it a good warning?

How about the warnings for Rita? Were they wrong? Rita hit the coast along the Texas/Louisiana border this morning as a category 3 hurricane--weaker than the dire warnings of another Katrina-like disaster.

Millions of people were evacuated from Houston and Galveston, as it turned out, unnecessarily. They got out of the way of Rita, a hurricane that wasn't as bad as had been feared. But also, they got out of the way of Katrina.

Let me explain that statement a little better.

People in Houston saw the news reports from Katrina. They saw the flooding, the looting, the general chaos. And they didn't want any part of it.

Katrina's damage in New Orleans would have been minuscule in comparison to what actually happened had the levees not been breached. The wind damage was there, but otherwise the city got off rather well. Or would have. But New Orleans is below sea level, directly underneath a brackish lake.
On the other hand, Houston and Galveston are above sea level. Once you go inland a few miles, you're well above sea level. No levees to break.

Out of all this, what's my point?

It all goes back to a variation on the subject line. Phony (or erroneous) hurricane alarms reduce readiness. A friend of mine from Chicago put it thusly: "A silver lining of Katrina is that people now heed hurricane warnings much more seriously. The worst thing that could happen, in a morbid kind of way, is for Rita not to bring too much damage upon Houston. Then the people along the Gulf Coast would go back to their old ways, going back to the worn idea that 'those weather guys don't know what they're talking about, and they always overwarn us.'"

That may be true.

But I'd rather overwarn than underwarn.


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