A Nation of Weather Weenies?

This article first appeared in the Washington Times, February 13, 2000.
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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 oftwo-tenths of an inch of water will create a famine that is beyondcomprehension. Faster than you can say "40% chance of snow," stores will beout of bread, milk, beer and weenies. The result, of course, is the bareshelves that were feared in the first place.

Hundreds of low pressure systems form every year on fronts that waggle upand down the screen on the 6pm weather show. So almost every night, itseems, The Weather Channel features a "storm watch" accompanied by musicmore appropriate for Desert Storm. Whoever got the short straw gets a coachticket to film video of the wind blowing. (Our addiction to bad weather isdemonstrated by the fact that there's no "good weather" channel, which couldpay pretty low salaries by sending camera crews, say, to Tahiti for footageof the Trade Winds.)

Then there's the problem of weather-caused absenteeism. When he was a mereMaster's student, now-University of Virginia professor Robert Daviscalculated the percentage of federal employees who skip work per inch ofsnow. Note that there are plenty scattered throughout the country (see thenearest "Federal Building" for an example). Davis found that--surprise--theplace that has the highest percentage of no-shows per inch is none otherthan 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 isto blame the federal government, and that may be the case. But ourheightened anxiety may in fact be the overhead that results from goodintentions and good results.

For any populated place, the United States has the most violent weather onthe 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-wirefence. Virtually everywhere else there is some mountain range or otherphysical 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 spinningsphere, this creates all kinds of circular motions. Some are low pressuresystems, and some are tornadoes. The U.S. has more tornadoes than everyother place on the planet combined.

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

In fact, along with our violent weather, we have the most privatized weatherdissemination industry on earth. The result is that everyone has immediateand direct access, via television or computer, to radar and satelliteinformation 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 livescan be very profitable, the "Tri-State Tornado" roared through the Missouri,Illinois and Indiana leaving 695 dead and thousands injured. It racked upthese totals mainly passing through farmland. In 1999, a similarly powerfullong-track storm barreled through central Oklahoma, only this time a bigcity--Oklahoma City--was in the way.

You can do the calculation by taking the death rates from the Tri-Statetornado, and adjusting for population density. Any way you look at it,without our combination of federal monitoring and private dissemination, the1999 tornado would have killed thousands more than it did.

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

One lesson we learned since then is that private, competitive disseminationof weather information is remarkably effective. In 1999, 14 category 4 or 5storms later, Hurricane Bret ripped into the Texas Gulf Coast and directlykilled not one person (Two people drove their car off a bridge inBrownsville). It is fair to say that this has never happened before in thehistory of the United States. Sure, it managed to land on one of the fewremaining places down there that isn't heavily condoed, but the fact is thatwithout the current system, dozens would have died.

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