The emergency response and warnings prompted by the approach of Hurricane Irene along the East Coast last week has, sadly but predictably, become a subject of much controversy.
Much of the furor surrounds whether or not the decisions made by the mayors of New York City or Ocean City, Mary., were too extreme. New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ordered the evacuation of lower Manhattan in the face of a threatened storm surge of eight feet that would have inundated the area.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Ocean City, a popular tourist destination on the eastern shore of Maryland, ordered businesses to shut down as the storm approached. Given the forecasts that were issued by the National Hurricane Center, staffed by the most knowledgeable hurricane scientists in the world, there was every reason to believe that a substantial hit from Irene was going to be delivered in these locations. In fact, the region was hit hard by the storm, though it was weaker than expected. Thus, these moves were wholly appropriate.
Luckily, Irene weakened enough before making landfall in the Northeast thus saving New York and Ocean City from the worst case scenario. The insistence that public officials overreacted to the threat posed by Irene represents a particularly dangerous type of Monday morning quarterbacking, perhaps engendering passivity in the face of future threats. Such an attitude would also suggest a distrust of science as a means to the end of protecting the lives and property of our fellow citizens.
It would be a shame if, given the outstanding progress that has been made in hurricane prediction in the last 25 years, the combination of media hype and a slightly errant forecast such as occurred with Irene might encourage such distrust and contribute to the willful disregard of future warnings.