Advancing a Free Society

Hurricane Irene: Of Micro and Macro events

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I write this short post from 25 Central Park West, Apartment #8E in New York City, where I spent the last night in the middle of Hurricane Irene. I use the precise street address because it offers a lot of information about how these complex events should be understood. Living on the upper west side, my wife and I did prudent things. We took in some extra food and water. We filled the bathtub with water, lest the water pressure be unable to reach the 8th floor. We took in some extra D batteries and purchased a phone that did not require a hookup to an electrical outlet. And we purchased extra food that could be eaten even if the gas stove and the microwave did not work.

We then went to sleep, woke up the next morning, and nothing had happened. The situation was rather different on Coney Island, which is on the southern boundary of Brooklyn, and in Westport Connecticut, where my daughter and her family spent the day. They were flooded and blown apart, because of their location near the beach and in the line of fire.

The lesson here is clear. In dealing with storms, it is critical to know both the macro and the micro environments. The former is important because New York City had to shut down its public events and transportation systems on the ground that these were vulnerable to any breakdown at their weakest link. But we slept just fine, and woke up in the morning and nothing happened overnight except the loss of a few trees in Central Park.

Why? Because in our microenvironment away from the shore, the force of the hurricane was largely dissipated, leaving just a blustery rainfall. These patterns turn out to be surprisingly common. Thus with respect to wind damage, it is possible for major damage to happen at one location, while sparing property located only a few yards away. Likewise with earthquakes, subtle variations beneath the surface could leave one building plot vulnerable to extensive damage while the one next door is impervious to all but the most serious damage.

In all settings therefore, both environments must be understood. In some instances, the relevant judgments are made at the time of crisis. In other cases, they should be made at the time of purchase of land, which should incorporate all these values, unless, of course, the government offers insurance in ways that systematically underestimate certain locational risks. It is a sad commentary on modern politics that our political institutions often stand in the way of making intelligent decisions in both long and short run.

(photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)