31 October 2012

Op-Ed in the WSJ

I have an op-ed in tomorrow's WSJ, just put online.  Here is an excerpt:
[W]ith respect to disasters we really do make our own luck. The relatively low number of casualties caused by Sandy is a testament to the success story that is the U.S. National Weather Service and parallel efforts of those who emphasize preparedness and emergency response in the public and private sectors. Everyone in the disaster-management community deserves thanks; the mitigation of the impacts from natural disasters has been a true national success story of the past century.

But continued success isn't guaranteed. The bungled response and tragic consequences associated with Hurricane Katrina tell us what can happen when we let our guard down.

And there are indications that we are setting the stage for making future disasters worse. For instance, a U.S. polar-satellite program crucial to weather forecasting has been described by the administrator of the federal agency that oversees it—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—as a "dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems." The lack of effective presidential and congressional oversight of this program over more than a decade can be blamed on both Republicans and Democrats. The program's mishandling may mean a gap in satellite coverage and a possible degradation in forecasts.
The op-ed is not about climate change, though I do mention the topic in 2 paragraphs near the end. I am sure the "climate change people" (Thanks Candy!) will want to make it all about that subject.

More importantly is the success story that is the NWS and emergency management in the US, and the scary thought that
In the proper context, Sandy is less an example of how bad things can get than a reminder that they could be much worse.
There is therefore reason to believe we are living in an extended period of relatively good fortune with respect to disasters.

Comments and questions welcomed.


  1. Related - a Kerry Emanuel WSJ blog article:


    Why America Has Fallen Behind the World in Storm Forecasting:

    As Hurricane Sandy (or “Frankenstorm”) pummels the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, we are reminded that our technological advancement has not altogether spared us the tragic side of our relationship to nature. Yet we should be thankful that much has changed for the better since the Northeast was devastated by the “Long Island Express” hurricane of 1938. That storm hit with no warning at all, with the U.S. Weather Bureau confidently predicting that the storm would stay out at sea just hours before it struck. The lack of warning led to over 600 deaths.

    As early as a week ago, some computer models were predicting that a strong and unusual storm would develop and bring dangerous weather to our area. Other models predicted that a storm might develop but would head out to sea and spare us. Then, as time went by, these various models gradually came to agree that the storm would pose great risks to the region extending from the Chesapeake to New England. The advanced information provided by computer models ingesting data from satellites, aircraft, weather balloons, and other platforms gave residents and governments time to prepare, and key businesses time to rush needed supplies to our region, sparing many lives and saving millions of dollars.

    Americans should take great pride in the fact that computer weather modeling was invented here, along with weather satellites and other scientific and technological marvels. Sadly, the skill of our computer models fell substantially behind that of other nations some decades ago, and by many measures we are in third or even fourth place today. The overall star performer is a computer model operated by a consortium of European nations; that model accurately predicted Sandy’s track and evolution well before U.S. models caught up later last week.



  2. Exceptional column Roger, brace yourself for the deluge of craziness that is to follow.

  3. A reader found a typo, SF earthquake was 1906 (not 1908) ... have asked to correct. Thanks for eagle eyes always appreciated!

  4. Nice editorial. Deserves wider dissemination, esp. to NPR which seemed more interested in reporting _why_ this happened rather that _what_ happened.

    BTW, the WSJ iPad app got to the '1906' in time.

    I thought Mike Smith over at


    had great coverage of Sandy. AccuWeather (which Mike is associated with) and other orgs (European?) did a nice job of predicting the path.

  5. "And even under the assumptions of the IPCC, changes to energy policies wouldn't have a discernible impact on future disasters for the better part of a century or more."

    Is this a reason to put off acting? Sounds like a reason to act as quickly as possible.

  6. -5-David vun Kamon

    Thanks for the comment. My op-ed is not an argument for "putting off acting" -- quite the opposite. Thanks!