A Nation of Weather Weenies?

February 13, 2000 • Commentary
This article first appeared in the Washington Times, February 13, 2000.

Our reaction to normal weather events prompts the following question: Is panic the price of eternal vigilance?

Over much of America, everyone seems to think that the crystallization of two‐​tenths of an inch of water will create a famine that is beyond comprehension. Faster than you can say “40% chance of snow,” stores will be out of bread, milk, beer and weenies. The result, of course, is the bare shelves that were feared in the first place.

Hundreds of low pressure systems form every year on fronts that waggle up and down the screen on the 6pm weather show. So almost every night, it seems, The Weather Channel features a “storm watch” accompanied by music more appropriate for Desert Storm. Whoever got the short straw gets a coach ticket to film video of the wind blowing. (Our addiction to bad weather is demonstrated by the fact that there’s no “good weather” channel, which could pay pretty low salaries by sending camera crews, say, to Tahiti for footage of the Trade Winds.)

Then there’s the problem of weather‐​caused absenteeism. When he was a mere Master’s student, now‐​University of Virginia professor Robert Davis calculated the percentage of federal employees who skip work per inch of snow. Note that there are plenty scattered throughout the country (see the nearest “Federal Building” for an example). Davis found that–surprise–the place that has the highest percentage of no‐​shows per inch is none other than our Nation’s Capital. No wonder Davis is now one of the more prominent “skeptics” of federal fears about global warming.

Why are we such weather weenies? The natural (and libertarian) impulse is to blame the federal government, and that may be the case. But our heightened anxiety may in fact be the overhead that results from good intentions and good results.

For any populated place, the United States has the most violent weather on the planet. It has to do with the fact that it is the only place where tropical warmth and polar cold are separated only by a barbed‐​wire fence. Virtually everywhere else there is some mountain range or other physical impediment that mitigates this clash.

The differential buoyancy of warm and cold air means that when they meet, massive upward motion must develop. Because the planet is a spinning sphere, this creates all kinds of circular motions. Some are low pressure systems, and some are tornadoes. The U.S. has more tornadoes than every other place on the planet combined.

In the early 1950s, two struck northern cities–Flint, Michigan and Worcester, Massachusettes, with tremendous loss of life. The reaction to these disasters ultimately led the Weather Bureau and its progeny in the public sphere to create a spectacular detection and warning system. Non‐​government people saw advantage in disseminating the information (people tend to turn on the TV when they think the weather is going bad) and the evening weather show and The Weather Channel became highly profitable. This largely privatized combination has saved a tremendous number of lives.

In fact, along with our violent weather, we have the most privatized weather dissemination industry on earth. The result is that everyone has immediate and direct access, via television or computer, to radar and satellite information that now resolves, literally, at the level of a large farm. How many lives has this saved?

In 1925, before weather radar, television, and the notion that saving lives can be very profitable, the “Tri‐​State Tornado” roared through the Missouri, Illinois and Indiana leaving 695 dead and thousands injured. It racked up these totals mainly passing through farmland. In 1999, a similarly powerful long‐​track storm barreled through central Oklahoma, only this time a big city–Oklahoma City–was in the way.

You can do the calculation by taking the death rates from the Tri‐​State tornado, and adjusting for population density. Any way you look at it, without our combination of federal monitoring and private dissemination, the 1999 tornado would have killed thousands more than it did.

In 1900, a Category 4 (out of five) hurricane hit Galveston, marking the first U.S. experience with a big storm hitting a built‐​up barrier. 7000 died. In that case, as shown in Erik Larsen’s riveting account, Isaac’s Storm, an authoritarian federal bureaucracy prevented a hurricane warning from being issued with enough lead time to get people to the mainland.

One lesson we learned since then is that private, competitive dissemination of weather information is remarkably effective. In 1999, 14 category 4 or 5 storms later, Hurricane Bret ripped into the Texas Gulf Coast and directly killed not one person (Two people drove their car off a bridge in Brownsville). It is fair to say that this has never happened before in the history of the United States. Sure, it managed to land on one of the few remaining places down there that isn’t heavily condoed, but the fact is that without the current system, dozens would have died.

In other words, there’s a lot of weather to be scared of around here. But vigilance does breed sensitivity, and we surely can overreact to merely offensive, rather than deadly weather. So, next time the forecast is for a few inches of snow, stay away from the grocery store and go to work. Honest, it won’t kill you.

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