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What can we learn from Hurricane Ian?

Residents check on one another in a flooded neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

In August 2014, Hurricane Charley was on a predicted path to hit Tampa, and an evacuation order was issued there. But Charley, a Category 4 hurricane, veered south and hit Fort Myers, whose inhabitants were shocked by the negative surprise and the destruction that Charley left. Several business people from Tampa were unhappy about the false alarm and the lost business due to the tourists who left when the evacuation was announced, and some blamed the authorities for causing those losses. Following Hurricane Ian last week, Fort Myers residents were once again surprised and astonished, but the people in Tampa were thankful for the same change in Ian’s track while having strong sympathy with the residents of Fort Myers.

Professional forecasters know that it is impossible to predict exactly where a hurricane will make landfall, and the error can be up to 100 miles in each direction in the last 24 hours before landing. The dilemma of officials is that they have to choose between two possible errors, either calling an evacuation that becomes a false alarm or not calling for an evacuation with horrendous consequences of a hurricane. The latter decision was made, for example, in October 2001 when Hurricane Irene was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico — but given the past two “false alarms” in Florida  (Hurricane Floyd and Tropical Storm Harvey both in 1999), local officials in both counties were reluctant to issue another evacuation for Irene, feeling that they could not politically afford to issue a third “unnecessary” evacuation.

Professional forecasters are risk averse, and despite improvement in the ability to predict the path of hurricanes, they anticipate the possibility of errors. And as one of them said, “‘If there is an error to be made, I would much rather be talking to someone who is mad because we told them to leave than to a widow we didn’t tell to leave and [her] house is 40 miles out in the ocean.”

Forecasters, meteorologists, oceanographers and the devoted emergency responders, will learn a lot from Ian, but what about the people who suffered its consequences? In the short run those people will have to rearrange their life, rebuild their homes and some may decide to move elsewhere. Given the increase of the intensity of hurricanes this may be a rational decision especially since scientists predicted in 2001 that that “the present (i.e., 1971-1994 period) high level of hurricane activity is likely to persist for an additional 10-40 years.” There is also a tendency of people in hard-hit areas, due to natural phenomena, to stay and rebuild their life. We observed such phenomena in areas that suffered earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions, for example, where people are either gambling or playing the odds against nature; but the above examples, with the exception of tornadoes, are of low probability though high consequence events.

Hurricanes are the deadliest force in nature that affects the coasts of the southern and southeastern coasts of the United States. They are a different beast because they visit us every year between June and November, and nobody can say with certainty that there will not be another strong hurricane between now and November 30.

There are partial solutions to defend against hurricanes, such as building barriers and using the ocean flora and vegetation as natural shields that help reduce the force of hurricanes. However, such projects require a lot of money and the determination of politicians to allocate funds to such projects, which may not be a likely bet, considering, for example, the current plan that is being proposed in the New York City area (due to Hurricane Sandy) at a cost of $52 billion and a very long period of construction.

There is, however, another means that can help mitigate the brunt of hurricanes. Acknowledging that there are different forces that affect the intensity and path of hurricanes, in recent years, scientists, meteorologists and oceanographers concluded that a major factor of hurricane strength is the temperature of the ocean water. The warmer the temperature of the upper layer of the ocean waters the faster a hurricane can intensify from Category 1 to a higher and stronger category storm.

Efforts to educate the population about the role of climate change on hurricane activity should be a primary lesson to be learned in schools and social media, with daily pictures of melting glaciers and rising waters in the streets of some towns in the southern tip of Florida and other low-lying coastal cities. At the same time, more should be done to argue against politicians who attempt to stop good laws, such as California’s law to switch to electric cars in 2035, and against those industrialists who profit from selling energy based on fossil fuels rather than clean energy. This may be a naïve idea at this point in time, but if we consider the consequences of the reluctance of coastal residents to evacuate in the face of an approaching hurricane, because they witnessed two near misses, the immediate tragedy of climate change may remind them on a daily basis the horrendous consequences that warming sea level temperatures have on hurricane destructive activity.

Zur Shapira is the William R. Berkley professor of entrepreneurship and management at the NYU Stern School of Business. He is co-author of “Trade-offs in a Tempest: Stakeholder Influence on Hurricane Evacuation Decisions,” published in Organization Science.

Tags Climate change evacuations extreme weather Global warming hurricane Hurricane Ian
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