Recovery: A tale of three hurricanes.

“Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” – Will Durant

“Recovery starts from the darkest moment.” – John Major

“Forget past mistakes. Forget failure. Forget about everything except what you’re going to do now – and do it.” (also) Will Durant

Start with Maria.

Puerto Rican recovery from Maria continues to break new ground – posing major challenges that had been unanticipated by planners (a direct, powerful hit of multiple islands, on the heels of multiple mainland disasters), and prompting unprecedented responses. The latest such response? Bringing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into the mix of efforts to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid (shown above). E&E News has a nice post on this, but their pieces are subscription-only, so here’s an excerpt or two (their news coverage is worth a look every day, even given today’s information glut):

…Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the Army Corps’ commanding general, has been “given a mission to restore power on Puerto Rico, writ large. Full stop,” Bossert said. The Army Corps’ immediate priorities remain assuring emergency electric power supplies to hospitals and other critical resources, and clearing roads to complete a damage assessment of the grid…

 …The federal takeover of grid restoration departs from long-standing grid recovery operations where the utility industry played a central role in coordinating emergency efforts by line crews coming in from distant utilities. In Puerto Rico’s case, because the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is a public power company, that assignment fell to the American Public Power Association (APPA).

 APPA President and CEO Sue Kelly said she was grateful for the Army Corps’ intervention. “Do we feel like we’re being pushed aside? Hell, no! It’s an all-hands-on-deck exercise, and we feel like they will be able to bring resources that will be extremely helpful,” Kelly said in an interview with E&E News.

 In the industry response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, utility crews from distant states drove to the scene to join in restoration. That was impossible for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and APPA said it could not dispatch help in any case until it was sure line crews would be safe.

“The situation and the conditions are extremely adverse, and we don’t want to send people in until we know they can be housed, they can be fed, they have water, they have tools, they have trucks, they have fuel,” Kelly said…

[Streit]”Some of the reasons that the Army Corps is getting involved is because we know the challenge that PREPA faces,” she said. “It’s one thing to be going through the financial troubles they have; it’s another to have two enormous hurricanes hit you head-on, and it’s additionally problematic when your people are the line workers.

 …”The idea behind the Army Corps is to provide additional assistance and structure to get them back on their feet,” she [Streit] said.

(For historical reasons, dating back to our Nation’s founding, the use of the uniformed services in response to domestic emergencies has always been cautious, requiring much in the way of formal requests from states and territories. That minimizes the risks of military takeover seen elsewhere around the world. However, it also has resulted, as here in the Puerto Rican instance, serious delays in getting help to Americans where needed.)


Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis captures today’s headlines, because life and death for millions still hang in the balance, and because the devastation is slightly more recent. But mainland remains in the very early stage of recovery, and would be in the national news were it not for Maria. But there is plenty of concern evident in the local headlines. Hotels and other tourist venues across the Florida Keys are struggling to reopen for visitors on October 1. Though three weeks ahead of schedule, this is as much a desperate effort to reboot the economy as a return to business-as-usual.

“We know we have a long way to go before the Keys fully recover,” Monroe County Mayor George Neugent said in a statement. “But because tourism is our top economic engine and many of our residents’ livelihoods depend on it, we also know that we need to begin asking visitors to return.”

October is an important month for their recreation industry, even as 25% of housing for residents has been destroyed. Low-cost housing was a particular casualty. Insurance claims continue to mount. National and state parks are facing a long, slow return to normal. Some resorts/golf courses escaped, but others were hard hit. Florida’s citrus crop (shown above) was devastated. And on and on.


In Texas the big story is the developing differences between the city of Houston and the state of Texas about whether the state should tap into its so-called rainy day fund to accelerate Houston’s recovery. A second story is also building. The state has appointed Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp as a recovery czar. ABC News reports:

The man tasked with overseeing Texas’ Hurricane Harvey rebuilding efforts sees his job as “future-proofing” before the next disaster, but he isn’t empowered on his own to reshape flood-prone Houston or the state’s vulnerable coastline, which has been walloped by three major hurricanes since 2006.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp will face the same political and bureaucratic challenges that have long stalled meaningful improvements in storm protections, and some doubt that even Harvey’s record flooding and huge price tag will bring about real change…

  Sharp, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, follows a line of fix-it men charged with picking up the pieces following major storms in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He has won early bipartisan praise as a practical choice to preside over the efforts to recover from Harvey, which killed more than 70 people and damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 homes.

 Sharp is the rare Democrat with sustained relevance in Republican-controlled Texas. He is former lawmaker and state comptroller who was U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s college roommate at Texas A&M, which Sharp has led since 2011 and will continue to lead while overseeing the rebuilding effort. Abbott joked that he’s now getting calls, texts and emails from Sharp “up to and sometimes well after midnight.”

 Sharp hasn’t laid out a long-term rebuilding plan yet and most of his public comments so far have been aimed at reassuring hard-hit communities that he won’t be a bureaucratic cog. But he has indicated that he’s thinking about the next disaster, saying “one of the guiding principles will be to future-proof what is being rebuilt so as to mitigate future risks as much as possible.”

Experience – not just from Houston, but from across the United States, suggests this “future-proofing” won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, our national news media have moved on – to coverage of NFL political football, proposed death of the “death tax,” and other tax code makeovers, charter-flight expenses of top political leaders, Russian tampering with the U.S. political process. Some if not all of this matters. News is, after all, “what is making today different from yesterday?” But behind the national headlines, for millions of Americans, the personal lead story day in and day out for months and in some cases years to come – perhaps even the defining moment in their life narrative – will be their experience with the 2017 hurricanes and their aftermath .

For them, “recovery,” won’t be quite the right word. For them, “recovery” as sometimes glibly tossed about by hazards academics and practitioners alike, as connoting a sense of completed action, has a whiff of “oxymoron.”

We all need to remain mindful of their continuing struggles and honor their continuing courage. As part of that mindfulness, we need to come alongside the Maria, Irma, and Harvey survivors, and remain there. We need to make shelter-in place, not evacuation, our goal, at both the community- and national levels – and refuse to settle for anything less.

With them, we all need to “Forget about everything except what [we’re] going to do now – and do it.”

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The existential human challenge.

from The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2017 (12th edition)

The existential human challenge?

You might have your own candidate; here’s one to chew on:

Thriving on our generous, dangerous, fragile planet.

Of course, an assertion like that deserves a bit of justification. Again, chances are you can write a better one, or a counter-argument, but here’s a quick defense:

Some people might prefer a challenge that is a bit more centered on the individual, perhaps having dimensions such as self-actualization, the spiritual, peace-of-mind, and so on. There’s a good case for going in that direction, but let’s save that for another time. Here, the word thriving refers to all seven-plus billion of us, capturing the idea that to be human is to be social, part of a society, a collective, to be fully interdependent. Thriving not incidentally tries to capture the idea that if all of us aren’t thriving, then none of us is. In practice, you and I tend to anesthetize ourselves to problems of world hunger, poverty, disease, etc., because they seem so intractable and/or distant, but nonetheless, the goal is a thriving that everyone shares to some degree. And… a thriving that endures. Thriving connotes something ongoing, sustainable – as opposed to fleeting.

The second part of the challenge centers on our host planet. Remarkably, Earth bears all three of these attributes. To start, it’s wholly generous; any overview shows more than enough food, water, and energy to go around. We have distributional problems, but not some gross insufficiency.

Earth also remains intractably dangerous; if we needed any reminders, in the American hemisphere alone we’ve seen threats from wildfire to earthquakes to hurricanes over these past few weeks. No reasons for complacency or to feel secure here (and that’s before we get to man’s-inhumanity-to-man[1]).

Hard to believe, given the dangerous bit, but Earth at the same time is proving worryingly fragile. Each week, each month, each year, we keep seeing evidence that that same seven-plus billion of us, just by treading around, despite meaning no harm, are bit-by-bit degrading landscapes, habitats, waters, and the atmosphere, and compromising ecosystem services on which we depend.

That’s our threefold relationship with the Earth.

Which brings us to the diagram (the link takes you to the original; the version reproduced here is maddeningly difficult to read), which appeared earlier this year in the World Economic Forum publication The Global Risks Report 2017 (12th edition). You recall that the World Economic Forum sponsors that Davos meeting every January. (Think of it as a meeting of the tiny minority of the world’s people with the most to lose. So their assessment of risks ought to mean something.) As you see, the diagram shows impact increasing vertically, and likelihood increasing to the right. That means that the events that are most likely and ought to worry us the most are those in the upper right-hand portion of the diagram. Look closely (the figure is something of an eye chart), and this is what you find: At the uppermost, rightmost, are extreme weather events. Clustered nearby? Natural disasters; large-scale, involuntary mass migrations (many of which stem themselves from weather extremes, such as the Puerto-Rican migration to the U.S. mainland just getting underway); water crises; the failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, food crises; and manmade environmental disasters. A few other risks are thrown in, but these tend to be less frequent, or lower-impact – so, less worrisome.

Bottom line? The WEF Report reaches the essentially the conclusion stated above: the different facets of our relationship with the planet matter  more and are proving more problematic than any dysfunction in our relationships with each other, shakiness in financial markets, etc. The WEF Report came out earlier this year, before recent events; therefore, to the extent it’s a bit of a forecast as well as a backward-looking assessment, it has verified. Though it’s always tempting to quibble with particular details, the WEF framing looks to be about right.

At this point, you may still feel that thriving on our generous, dangerous, fragile planet doesn’t quite hit the bar of existential. You may think it rises only to the level of, say, important.  Whatever! We all agree such thriving matters. Therefore, if you participate anywhere in the space of Earth observations, science, and services; if you’re in emergency management, or agribusiness, or the energy sector, or water-resource management, or the building and operation of critical infrastructure – please take a moment to reflect on the worth of what you do.

And please keep it up! The rest of us need you.



(with thanks to Dr. Mona Behl for recently passing along a link to the 2017 WEF Report, thus prompting this post)

[1] And please forgive the political incorrectness of this framing.

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Building U.S. disaster resilience.

Prologue: With each passing day, the Puerto Rican disaster reveals its true extent. It’s no mere disaster (a word cheaply tossed about), but a dire – and deepening – humanitarian crisis. Three million islanders need help now with food, water, power, sewage, basic medical care, and necessities. What’s more, there seems to be little reasonable prospect of returning to business-as-usual in any useful time frame. A hollowing-out comparable to that of New Orleans following Katrina seems inevitable. Many Puerto Ricans – perhaps a majority – will need to resettle on the U.S. mainland. Recovery – not a true recovery, but a return to some new normal – will take decades.

 We owe the people of Puerto Rico (and for that matter, many others in Texas and Florida) the fullest measure of assistance in the days ahead. As for the long term, we owe them more than a promise “to rebuild as before;” we owe them some hope, if not assurance, that “this will never happen again.”


The fact is, we owe this assurance not just to the people of Puerto Rico, but to ourselves. Virtually all of us live along other vulnerable coastlines; in riverine floodplains; in seismic zones, at risk from earthquake or tsunami; in tornado alley; or with sunbaked drought and the threat of wildfire. Each of us are familiar with our local hazards and live with a chill reality: our turn is coming.

We need a ratchet, to incrementally work down our risk.

In fact, two ratchets would be twice as good. Here they are:

1.Something old… something borrowed: the U. S. Department of Commerce. When Theodore Roosevelt established the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 (Labor was calved off in 1907), he envisioned it as the Nation’s statistical agency, in charge of all statistics except for things agricultural (a decade older, the USDA was already a formidable political force by then). Evidence of this origin still remains, in the form of the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, The Economics and Statistics Administration, etc. Throughout the Department’s history, even as other agencies such as the Weather Bureau (now morphed into NOAA) and the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) were added, the measurement of things difficult to measure – the U.S. population, GDP and balance of trade, fish stocks, global temperatures, the length of the standard meter, the duration of the second of time, etc. – has been the unifying intellectual thread.

But along the way, the Department was repurposed into something more, in effect borrowed for a bigger job. Its components, in addition to their myriad other uses, today comprise a powerful national tool for maintaining business and community continuity in the face of hazards. NOAA can warn of the hazards – and today takes that one step further for businesses and communities through Impact-based Decision Support Services (IDSS). Census keeps track of vulnerable populations – the poor, the aged, the infants, the underrepresented groups most at risk from hazards, as well as the employees who operate and maintain critical infrastructure. NIST helps make construction and critical infrastructure more resilient through its wind, fire, and seismic engineering programs. FEMA and HUD may help hazard survivors find housing, but DoC’s Economic Development Administration helps communities stitch back their regional economy and restore and create needed jobs post-disaster.

Match these capabilities with the LOTRW resilience-policy list:

  • Learn from experience? NOAA’s climatological data and models summarize past weather, water, and climate threats as well as provide a glimpse of the future. NIST analysis of building successes and failures points the way to improved designs and codes for structures and for infrastructure going forward.
  • No adverse impact? NOAA’s hazard information combined with Census data and NIST capabilities provide the raw ingredients needed to assess implications of nationwide economic development, construction, and land use for future U.S. vulnerability.
  • Keep score of disaster losses? Made to order for Census, ESA, and BEA capabilities. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences specifically recommended in the 1990’s that Commerce take on this job.
  • Public-private partnerships? Business (aka commerce) is in the Department’s name. The Chamber of Commerce is just across Jackson Square. The Business Roundtable is up by the Capitol. Hundreds of more specialized trade organizations are within a stone’s throw.

Three observations. First, it should be evident that there’s much more that could and should be added by way of detail to extend and flesh out what Commerce really has to offer. This brief list just hints at the possibilities.

Second, because these Commerce capabilities have been developed organically within the separate components of the Department, rather than through any strategic, integrated vision for a Commerce business- and community continuity portfolio, to date the whole is little more than the sum of the parts.

Third, these ideas have been around for a while, dating back at least twenty years. Outsiders who don’t bother to look under the hood see Commerce as “old.” Long-term Commerce stakeholders and some former Commerce Secretaries[1] have been blinkered to see only U.S.-Trade-Representative-envy, remaining perennially vexed by fisheries lawsuits, the decennial need to grow staff by a factor of ten to meet Census needs, and other “distractions.” To many, looking at funding constraints for Commerce as a whole, to “borrow” from established mandates in order to meet the nation’s needs for business and community continuity has seemed a big leap.

2.Enter something new, something (big?) blue. Big leap indeed. But the biggest leap needed is one that would convert Commerce data into actionable information, into impact-based decision support that’s truly useful: lifesaving, cost-saving, money- making, across the whole of the national agenda. If we look only at yesterday’s tools, prospects look dour. But if we look to tomorrow’s tools, the future looks considerably brighter.

The tool that matters most? Hands-down it’s the set of capabilities represented by Big Data, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive computing (and also known by other names). The progress already made in this arena is little short of amazing, and that’s before exascale computing is starting to come on line. Problems beckon for attention from these tools across the whole of the national agenda (there’s certainly plenty to do elsewhere, as IBM’s work with Watson in the healthcare realm demonstrates).

But Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria make a compelling case that building community and business resilience to hazards, and emergency management in its broadest sense, should be in play. Big Data and the Commerce Department could make great progress by working in concert. Returning to the above list:

  • Learn from experience? Cognitive computing might take a while to “bone up” on the root causes of disaster, and make many mistakes early on, but its signature trait is learning from such experience versus repeating past errors. It would get better rapidly.
  • No adverse impact? Cognitive computing can rapidly and tirelessly assimilate NOAA, NIST, and Census information. It can explore options and diverse scenarios to tease out the downstream implications of proposed community-level and national-level economic development for associated growth or reduction in resilience.
  • Keep score of disaster losses? Cognitive computing could surely facilitate and sharpen Census, ESA, and BEA loss estimation.
  • Public-private partnerships? Because work in cognitive computing is in private-sector hands, this might be precisely the partnership that matters most.

And speaking of partnerships, that’s exactly what’s required. Cognitive computing shouldn’t (and won’t) supplant the work of urban planners, or business leadership, or emergency managers or other local and national officials. Instead, it will augment that work, making it more effective. Imagine, for example,  that Hurricane Maria had occurred in a world of the future, where leaders and emergency managers had available cognitive computing tools to (1) see the Puerto-Rican humanitarian crisis coming days in advance, (2) help identify needed assets commensurate with the scope of the problem, and (3) aid in the pre-positioning of those assets, versus today’s belated realization of Puerto Rico’s existential predicament.

Of course Commerce and Big Data haven’t been waiting for random bloggers to point out all this from the sidelines. For over two years now, Commerce has teamed up with Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and the Open Cloud Consortium under separate Cooperative Research and Development Agreements to explore opportunities such as this.

There’s clearly a public good here. What about a business opportunity for the private sector? Is it possible to do well while doing good? Several examples: Start with Amazon itself, contemplating a second headquarters. Surely the prospects for business continuity in the face of hazards enters Amazon’s equation. Other companies, whether large or small, are also in the business of risk management, but possess fewer in-house assets. Here’s one aspect where they would all welcome help. In the same way, states and local governments, seeking to attract businesses, would welcome information on how they stack up and might improve with respect to disaster resilience. And the federal government and U.S. businesses should together see many international opportunities for providing derivative products and services.

Expect to see us ratchet toward a safer, more productive world.


A sixpence in your shoe: Okay, Bill, why the “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” wedding meme?

Because we’re told that “Something old represents continuity; something new offers optimism for the future; something borrowed symbolizes borrowed happiness; something blue stands for purity, love, and fidelity; and a sixpence in your shoe is a wish for good fortune and prosperity.”

Continuity? Optimism? Happiness? Purity, Love, Fidelity? Good fortune and prosperity? Universal aspirations for all of us living on the real world, confronting its pervasive natural threats. A union of these two ratchets can bring us a step closer to these goals.


[1] Secretary Ron Brown had a different view, seeing Commerce as the Cabinet Department for the 21st century – a tool for sustainability – but his life was tragically cut short in 1996 by a plane crash in Croatia while on a trade mission to eastern Europe.

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Ratcheting-up America’s resilience to hazards.

Prologue: The daily news from Puerto Rico is excruciatingly tragic. A week after Hurricane Maria’s passage, some 3.5 million people are still picking their way through 3000 mi2 of debris in a search for food and water, and despair mounts. The same island geography that ruled out evacuation now slows the arrival and distribution of emergency aid. Maria grimly reminds us that timing is everything; most other years in American history, hurricane survivors would still be the number#1 news story at this point. Today, different issues dominate the mainland headlines.

For weeks now, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have been schooling America, revealing our affluence to be a brittle one. We’re not resilient to natural hazards – a serious vulnerability, since we live on a planet that does much of its business through extreme events. Worse yet, what resilience we do enjoy in the United States has been declining, community-by-community, bit-by-bit, over decades[1]. This season’s hurricanes aren’t some fluke, or by any means the last time hazards will test us. Instead the storms presage a future of such calamitous scenarios, each of which daily draws one day nearer. Worse still, while the hurricanes have come and gone (for the moment, Maria lingers offshore), each day’s news from Texas, Florida, and especially the Caribbean finds tragedy to still building, for millions of people. Recovery efforts lag the urgent need.

The previous LOTRW post points out the obvious; there’s no single silver bullet that can quickly stop these trends, make all this aright. Just as we’ve ratcheted our way into this predicament, we must ratchet our way out – changing daily our public-sector and private-sector decisions and actions all across the country – on many fronts. We must also persevere in this effort, which will take many years.

What would such ratcheting look like? All of us need to give this some priority. That’s not just because every American is vulnerable to natural hazards (indeed, none of us is immune). It’s not just because each of us shoulders responsibility for family and loved ones who need our protection – although we do. It’s because each of us will need to play an active role if we’re to reverse course, start building a safer America. Here’s a short list of just some of the pieces to the puzzle, and how you and I fit in.

Learn from experience (an important life lesson, and a recurring LOTRW theme). After each natural disaster, Americans have shown courage and resolve; we bravely say, “we’ll rebuild as before.” But that approach, however deeply embedded in our individual and collective psyche, condemns us to a future of repetitive loss. In another arena – aviation – we take an entirely different approach. After each catastrophe, led by the National Transportation Safety Board, we come together and say, “this must never happen again.” And we follow up accordingly. That’s why today, aviation, despite fourfold growth in flights over the past decades, has fewer accidents in absolute number than it once did – even while losses due to natural disasters continue to mount in response to population growth and property exposure. In aviation, we learn from experience.

How do we change our mindset? How can we capture each natural disaster’s lessons about land use, building codes, vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure and our own human nature to do better the next time around? While the particulars of this learning may be delegated to a relative handful of experts, the growing knowledge will not be harnessed – put into practice – unless all Americans integrate such learning and action across our culture and values, and give political and business leaders the backing they need to institute change. Every American insists on safe travel. We have to be equally vocal in our call for safe communities in which to live and work.

Set a goal of no-adverse impact. The Association of State Flood Plain Managers (ASFPM) has promoted this idea for years. They ask that individuals, governments, and businesses be more thoughtful – and responsible – when it comes to the connection between our decisions and actions (on all fronts) and vulnerability to hazards. The ASFPM idea is simple and compelling: before implementing any flood-control measure at a local level, developing any real estate in floodplains, etc., those involved should undertake, and make public, a careful analysis of any downside, any unintentional consequences to such action. The policy is analogous to environmental impact statements familiar from the world of environmental protection. (Those statements were first viewed as oppressive bureaucracy but now are generally accepted; we might expect to see the same shifts in thinking here.)

Keep score. Currently, disaster losses are not routinely incorporated into the national income accounts. However, this latest spate of losses may be, because estimates suggest a hit to 3rd-quarter GDP growth of something like 0.8%, just from Harvey and Irma alone. (Losses from Maria may well be comparable to their sum.) The figures may prove to be serious underestimates. GDP counts as a positive contribution the rebuilding that such hurricanes make necessary, without taking into account those same funds might have been spent to create true growth in the national economy, versus simply recovering a fraction of what was destroyed. For decades, experts have recommended that the United States work out a more accurate  accounting for losses, incorporating losses due to business disruption as well as property destruction per se (the Caribbean’s future losses in tourist revenue, for example). Thanks to rising role of critical infrastructure in the viability of communities and businesses, these two components to economic loss are now typically comparable. We also need a more consistent framework for loss estimation across all hazards, ranging from earthquakes and wildfire to the storms under discussion here. This isn’t just an exercise in looking backward; the accounting establishes information base and the disciplined thinking we need if we’re to look ahead and make risk assessments for our local communities, our places of work, and even our households. Again, a matter for experts, but you and I can work locally and even nationally to build contributing data sets.

Unleash the full potential of public-private partnerships. Some 90% of the U.S. workforce is employed by the private-sector. Only 10% work for federal, state, and local governments. As a result, every phase of hazards policy requires the joint efforts of governments, large corporations, and small businesses. A look at any location, at any level, shows this is exactly how things work. Agencies and businesses work side-by-side in pre-event mitigation, in emergency response, and in recovery. Critical infrastructures (e.g., communications, electrical, sewage, transportation and water) and softer infrastructures (such as schools, hospitals, financial, etc.) are operated and maintained in some cases by the public sector, and in others through private firms. But apart from scattered exceptions here and there, whether at federal, state, or local levels, the United States lacks platforms or venues where the sectors can coordinate strategically with respect to community resilience, business continuity, and other matters. Any coordination is largely tactical. Again, all of us, not just those in formal emergency-response roles, are involved. We’re individually in the best position to know what we require of and can contribute to business and community continuity.


What to do? Fortunately, the Nation has two powerful, previously-unused or underutilized tools that it can bring to bear. One is a federal entity that has been with us for more than a century that has all the needed components in place, but has never been applied in an integrated manner to the challenge of business and community resilience. The other is a new technology, for the moment cutting its teeth on other challenges. Considered singly, each looks intriguing. In combination, they offer real hope.

More on these tools, and how they might be brought to bear, in future posts.


[1] Not so much through failure, as through success. American economic growth, technology advance, and social change have unintentionally introduced new vulnerabilities, untested by any hazards until now.

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“A banker lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining but takes it back when it starts to rain.” – (origin debated)

Let’s get one thing straight: in the face of natural hazards, the individual- and the societal policy goal should be the same, namely:

Home should be a safe haven, not just on fair-weather days, but also when times are threatening. Home has to be more than the point of embarkation for flight from danger.

 Home should not be like that proverbial banker – offering shelter when it’s least needed, but then falling short just when it most matters.

Shelter-in-place? Six[1] aspects of the policy merit our attention.

1. For millions of people, shelter-in-place has not been a viable option this hurricane season. Across the Caribbean and on the mainland United States, houses of conventional construction situated in floodplain were simply not defensible in the face of category-4 hurricane winds and several feet of storm surge. To stay would have been to court injury and death.

2. The alternative to shelter-in-place is evacuation. And evacuation presents two sides. On the one hand, in the face of impending disaster, evacuation can save lives. Who could ask for more? But in too many ways, evacuation presages defeat. All too often, evacuation is not an end to risk. Instead it’s the portal, to weeks or years or even a lifetime of risk and tragedy and disaster of another kind.

3. Evacuation has its limits, poses intrinsic dangers. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria demonstrate this. Evacuations can readily save lives when thousands of people are involved. But Harvey and Irma showed that when millions are on the move, scaling–up leads to hours on crowded roads, gridlock, and travel of hundreds of miles. To do this safely requires pre-positioning stocks of gasoline, food, and other essentials for evacuees, as well as readying numerous emergency shelters across broad areas. The lead times required for these measures get passed along in the form of new demands on weather forecast guidance. The result? Despite dramatic improvements in hurricane forecasts, the extensions in lead times are barely keeping pace with the growing needs of emergency responders. At best, we’re on a treadmill.

In Florida, Irma exposed additional limitations to evacuation. Instead of quickly traversing a small segment of the state, Irma’s path took its time grinding along Florida’s entire north-south length, crunching away at communities and coastlines for many hours. Evacuees found themselves hopping back and forth across the state from coast to coast in (often vain) efforts to dodge shifts revealed hour to hour.

Following both Harvey and Irma, evacuees found themselves in an even more chaotic situation – trying to get back home. Authorities, aware that critical infrastructure – electrical power, water, and sewage had been dangerously compromised – barred the way back. New, unanticipated dependencies were revealed. Electrical repair crews couldn’t get into the evacuated areas – because no one was there to clear debris. They’d all evacuated. And so on. Getting back in was more confused than leaving. Tempers flared. And too many returned not to home but to complete devastation and loss. Anger was replaced by grief.

This back end of evacuation is only in its initial stages. Evacuees are just now beginning the process of working with (those proverbial) bankers about who still owns what property, is entitled to what relief, owes what money, and more. After Katrina and Sandy, settling these issues delayed rebuilding homes and businesses for many months. This year’s experience promises to be little different.

It doesn’t end there. Across the full extent of the Caribbean, first Irma and then Maria demonstrated that evacuation doesn’t work on islands, which offer no place to evacuate to. In the days since, Barbuda’s entire population has had to be relocated to Antigua, but that could be accomplished only after the fact. Moreover, at this writing the fate of millions of Puerto Ricans hangs in the balance as emergency responders work desperately to meet the population’s basic needs for drinking water and food. With restoration of power nowhere in sight, many Puerto Ricans may be relocated on the mainland. It doesn’t help that the territory had been flirting with bankruptcy prior to the disaster.

Lastly, evacuation seems attractive when framed as a temporary expedient. But it looks far less attractive when viewed as something permanent. And evacuation will prove permanent for many survivors of this year’s hurricane season, whether islanders or mainlanders. Past experience suggests that the financial losses, degraded physical health and well-being, and PTSD will also persist for years or a lifetime.

4.The simple articulation of shelter-in-place is deceptive. To most of us, shelter-in-place seems a high bar. To build a house strong enough to survive wind and gale, and on ground high enough to be safe from flood? Sounds expensive, prohibitively so. But the true requirements for shelter-in-place are hidden, and more stringent still. Harvey, Irma, and Maria make clear (if indeed we needed any prompting) that defensible housing is more than a well-engineered structure situated on suitable land. In the year 2017, shelter-in-place still means keeping the roof on and the ground-floor dry. But today it also requires continuity of essential services: electrical power, communications, water, sewage, roads, and more.

More? Yes, essential services mean the entire food-supply chain, schools, police and fire, hospitals and health care. If that sounds like almost everything, that’s because it is. Today, shelter-in-place ultimately means maintaining the integrity and functionality of every aspect of community and business life.

This is the point of the argument where most professionals, whether in emergency management, local government, large or small business, engineering, or urban planning, throw up their hands and say such a goal can never be achieved.

Perhaps not. But that brings us to the fifth and sixth points.

5. We incrementally ratcheted our way into our present predicament. We need to ratchet our way out. Our present vulnerability wasn’t an act of will. It isn’t the result of any single decision, in any one location, or economic sector. It’s the cumulative result of thousands of decisions, actions, and small compromises and shortcuts made by individuals and institutions over many years. And those decisions and actions had in turn been embedded in a larger universe of the daily, monthly, and annual choices that added together have shaped our national culture and ways of doing business over centuries.

We’re not going to work our way out of our brittle, fragile lifestyle into a resilient alternative overnight or even in a single decade. But we can accomplish this feat over the next half-century, especially if we harness new tools such as artificial intelligence and its close kin, environmental intelligence; if we innovate in the ways we construct homes and buildings and plan entire cities; if we build an added measure of resiliency into each of our critical infrastructures; and if we learn-from-experience instead of rebuilding-as-before. This latter is the overarching key to success. As discussed frequently in LOTRW posts, we have an example of such success before us: the National Transportation Safety Board.

Which brings us to

6. Some disasters occur at a worldwide scale. Under these scenarios, evacuation is not a viable prospect. There’s no place to run! For example (to pick one possible hazard out of many), suppose this planet should become too warm. NASA will be unable to move large numbers of us to a cooler planet any time soon.


Have the feeling your back is to the wall? So do I. So let’s be strong! Let’s commit to making shelter-in-place work. And since we’re all in this together, let’s act it. Let’s extend a helping hand to those displaced who need relief now. Let’s put aside our pre-existing differences with each other, no matter how longstanding (discarding that discord on the same trash heaps now lining the streets and roads where the hurricanes came through), shake hands, and partner-up. We can do this.


[1] You might have a modified or completely different list. If so, please let us hear from you!

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Time to hit the reset button on American weather-hazards policy?

Here is America’s weather-hazards policy in a nutshell[1]:

  • React at times when weather outlooks and forecasts indicate danger.
  • Shelter in place where practical; otherwise, save lives through emergency response, primarily evacuation.
  • Start with action at the local level. Call in state-level government if local purview or resources are inadequate; request federal assistance when and if state-level resources, approaches are insufficient.
  • After disaster, rebuild as before.
  • Provide resources for recovery from (private-sector) insurance claims and from government supplemental funding; determine level and allocation of the latter based on politics of the situation and exigencies of the moment versus any over-arching formula.
  • Rely on public-private collaboration across all phases – mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery – while maintaining arm’s-length separation between sectors.
  • Gather any needed information on the nature and extent of hazard losses ad hoc.

This policy framework hasn’t become our way of doing business through any particular political dogma. It’s grown organically while being repeatedly tweaked and reshaped over a few centuries of American experience. Unsurprisingly, therefore, every element has much to commend it; offers merit.

React to hazard? Evacuate? There’s certainly no need to respond to disrupt routine unnecessarily when staying put and business-as-usual are viable options.

Place-based focus? Surely that’s appropriate. Weather hazards are highly-localized. Those in harm’s way have the most to lose and at the same time best know their options, opportunities, and risks in the face of approaching hazard. “Listen to local officials” is the starting point for state- and federal answers to virtually every question. And should be.

Saving lives should certainly matter more than minimizing property or business disruption. Government and business leaders at every level reaffirm this priority at every turn.

Rebuild as before is what disaster survivors instinctively desire most after surviving such traumatic events; they want their pre-disaster lives back.

By its nature, politics is more local and adaptive, more flexible and responsive than cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, rigid formulas. For most of American experience, the attitude of the American people and our leaders has been “those in a position to help the targets of this particular disaster could well be those in need the next time around – of course we’ll lend a hand.”

U.S. separation between public- and private sectors has proved the most effective safeguard against the corruption and conflicts-of-interest that afflict so many peoples worldwide.

And finally, because “disasters” are ill-defined, intermittent, and unique, efforts to estimate losses have varied widely from event to event.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, both individually and by dint of following one another in quick succession, have put this policy basket to a stress test.

The full stress-test results will take a long time to come in. But here’s what we already know:

  • Weather outlooks and forecasts showed skill undreamed of just a few years ago. They indicated danger while both events were many days off – yet that still wasn’t enough lead time.
  • In hindsight, both shelter-in-place and evacuation were seen to pose huge risks that were hard to anticipate, and generally underestimated, a priori.
  • Rebuilding as before will not only take years but will condemn some number of Texans and Floridians to future repetitive loss.
  • Only a small fraction of the losses represented by flooded homes and businesses will be covered by insurance. Moreover, the American tradition of extending a helping hand is compromised by the huge scale of the uninsured losses, and by recent history (especially Hurricane Sandy) that revealed a fraying of what had been considered a time-honored, solid social contract. Hardly any survivors will be “made whole.” Tragically, this is probably most true for the most vulnerable in our society – the poor, the elderly, ethnic minorities, etc.
  • Public-private collaboration has been good throughout the events per se, but the arm’s-length separation of the sectors over prior decades has compromised pre-event planning and mitigation with respect to measures such as building codes, land-use, and resilience of critical infrastructure.
  • The nature and extent of hazard loss figures suggested so far, even though they total $200B or more, look to underestimate considerably the likely final totals. And they only hint at a massive U.S.-wide vulnerability that has developed from a century or so of U.S. hazards policy – vulnerability that is ratcheting up, each and every day.


The Harvey-Irma stress tests don’t contain any new revelations so much as they confirm what scientists, engineers, planners, emergency managers, and many others have been arguing all along, to wit:

There’s considerable room for improvement with respect to each aspect listed above[2]. Expect to see multiple national and international conversations on these topics in the months and years ahead.


[1] “In a nutshell?” To many LOTRW readers, that may seem synonymous with “outrageously oversimplified and possibly even misleading.” Please forgive me; had to start somewhere!

[2] And undoubtedly other aspects as well; please offer your additional points, or suggest a reframing of the list.

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The Harvey-Irma reveal.

“Forecasting the weather” vs. “protecting life and property?” Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reveal important policy implications.

An earlier pair of LOTRW posts introduced this subject. They argued that the shift from merely predicting the state of the atmosphere to use of that information to save lives and property was a big jump – not some incremental step. The posts hinted at the existence of implications for policy, but left those to a future discussion.

The future is now.

The subject is a broad one, and can be framed in many ways[1]. To spur thought, here are three policy challenges. (Please critique and/or substitute your additional, better ideas.) Here goes…

Policy Challenge #1. Harvey and Irma make clear that deterministic weather forecasts per se can indeed protect lives, but are of limited value when it comes to saving property (or for that matter, ensuring business continuity – more on this later). Given reliable notice a week or ten days in advance, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a few million people, may be able to flee such storms. But with uncertainties at the front end, people find it difficult to evacuate early on, when the threat is only a probability and when traffic is still moving freely. It’s all to easy to delay and then get trapped with thousands of others in the grind of inching along the road, bumper-to-bumper for hours even as gasoline and other necessities are suddenly nowhere to be found along the way.

Evacuees aren’t able to take their homes with them. They can’t take their places of employment with them. They can’t relocate the schools for their children or the hospitals providing family healthcare out of harm’s way. As Harvey and Irma teach, we can evacuate and save our lives, but the quality of our lives has become much diminished – days or even years after the actual hazard has come and gone.  Passing empty hours in a shelter? Returning home, only to spend days on end moving ruined possessions out to the street and fighting to prevent the spread of mold in the remaining, still waterlogged, shell? Searching for a new job versus going to the familiar one? Waiting in endless lines at government agencies competing for attention and a few scraps of help? To live this way is to experience a co-mingling of boredom, exhaustion, fear, and frustration –all the while seeing neither any end in sight nor reason to hope.

Here’s the reality. If meteorologists are to save property, we do it best not by our forecasts but by doing our bit to promote policies that make home the safest place to be (versus a point of embarkation for families to evacuate), that make it more likely the old job will be waiting as soon as the hazard has passed, that see to it that natural hazards remain natural (e.g., that floods represent rising water levels but don’t degrade into a toxic cocktail of raw sewage, pollutants, and animal carcasses). Those policies emphasize appropriate land use (e.g., not building in the floodplain), rigorous building codes, resilient critical infrastructure, and appropriately-regulated siting and operation of chemical production and storage.

Meteorology plays a role in all this! But it starts not from short-term physical forecasts so much as guidance from past experience – what climatology can tell us about hazard risk over the lifespans of buildings and infrastructure, rather than the precise extent or timing of particular events (as well as what we can say about how climate is changing and why). When such information is used effectively, then hazard risk management emphasizes reducing the need for evacuation, versus management of evacuations of ever great numbers, areal extent, and complexity.

A side note about business continuity. In the United States, the loss profile from hazards has shifted through history. Loss-of-life figures are noisy (witness the losses of 1800 people in Katrina and more than 1000 people during the 2011 hurricane season) but have been generally declining over past decades. Property losses have risen, commensurate with population increase and property exposure in hazard-prone areas, especially along the coasts. In recent years, however – with the emergence of just-in-time, zero-inventory manufacturing, global supply chains, and dependence of both communities and industry on critical infrastructure – losses due to business interruption are growing, becoming comparable to property losses per se. Thanks to the role of information technology in enabling these shifts, with real-time control of processes, weather forecasts can reduce some of the business disruption – but not all.

Policy Challenge #2. Extreme events are nature’s way of doing business, but disasters – disruptions of entire communities, persisting after the hazard has come and gone, and exceeding the community’s ability to recover on its own – are a human construct. As a result, social trends including urbanization, globalization of commerce, and dependence on critical infrastructure are changing the very nature of disasters – and on time frames short compared with the recurrence rate of rare extremes. As a result, there is little opportunity for trial-and-error learning. To protect property and prevent or at least reduce community and business disruption going forward will require continuing innovation – of new technology development and societal uptake of those advances – at a pace far greater than anything we’ve known.

Two big arenas for such innovation in the Earth observations, science, and services community? First, advances in observing capacity – new instruments, ground-based, and space-based platforms – promise unprecedented resolution, spatial coverage, and diagnostic power. Second, exascale computers, able to make a billion-billion calculations/second – 1000 times present speeds – are coming on line over the next few years. Together these developments will allow us to push back the time horizons for deterministic weather forecasts as well as extend our ability to make climate projections decades into the future. But that’s not all. They will fuel the explosive growth of big data, data analytics and cognitive computing – entirely new capabilities that will allow us to anticipate and forestall any ratcheting-up of vulnerability to natural hazards resulting from changes in land use, construction, population growth, and the deployment of new critical infrastructure.

But closer examination of these two challenges – the protection of property, and innovation – reveals

Policy Challenge #3. We need to rework the policy framework that allows the public, private, and academic sectors to collaborate in building resilience to hazards. The principal-agent separation that governs so much of the relationship between governments and business at all levels has served us well for two centuries, minimizing the potential for conflicts of interest, corruption, and other ills that plague many countries today worldwide. But it fails us here. Much of the growing U.S. vulnerability to hazards stems from the way governments and private enterprise have engaged with each other, or maintained each other at arm’s length, over that same time period. Stereotypes of independence and free markets, and over-simplified characterizations of public- and private goods have blinded all parties to the realities that these distinctions have blurred or become obsolete, or perhaps never were as real or useful as they’d once seemed. Similarly, the speed and type of innovation required to make communities, businesses, governments, and nations more resilient will never be achieved by government or the private sector acting alone, and will never be achieved so long as academia remains an uninvolved, scholarly critic; academia has to be invited to the table.

Whew! Far easier to identify a few challenges than to market them to the larger society we serve , let alone make some actual progress with respect to each. Clearly “above the meteorologists’ pay-grade.”

We can’t do it alone. But we have to make a start. Otherwise, property losses and community and business disruption from hazards will only continue to grow.


[1] Part of the reason for my hesitancy. I’d promised a follow-on at that time, but upon reflection, struggled to find an approach that would capture the complexity, breadth, and sheer moment of the topic. In short, I’ve suffered writer’s block. The two hurricanes helped focus me on three big pieces. Even though the discussion here is necessarily flawed/incomplete, perhaps it provides a starting point for broader community thinking.

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Hurricane Harvey: The REAL world intrudes on the VIRTUAL one… and sharpens minds.

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” – C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Some reflections as rain from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey pelt on the roof here at home in the DC suburbs…

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re living, at least momentarily, in a virtual world – one that is two-degrees-of-separation from the real world. Any problems you’re facing (again for the moment) are virtual-world problems: slow Internet connectivity, weak WiFi, cyber-insecurity, data-use overage fees, low battery charge on your mobile device, annoying pop-ups, and more.

Put down your cellphone or turn away from your laptop, and again, chances are good you’re still finding yourself in a virtual world, though now separated from reality by only one degree. You’re in an enclosed, artificially lit, temperature and humidity controlled room. Or, even if you’re outside, you’re in an urban canyon, or a largely artificial urban or suburban groundscape. In this virtual world, a full range of privately- and publicly-provided products and services isolate you from the larger and less hospitable real world. Water, guaranteed to be safe for consumption, is available from tap or bottle. Reliable 60-cycle, 110-120V AC is available from any of numerous outlets. Are you hungry? Food trucks, fast-food, coffee shops, restaurants, and high-end grocery stores vie for your business; at home, the refrigerator and pantry call your name. Feel like learning something? Feeling a bit under the weather? Threatened by someone or something nearby? Colleges, hospitals and medical centers, police and fire are all standing by. Tired of working at your comfortable desk job? (For many privileged to live in this virtual world, exertion is a choice, not a necessity.) All manner of entertainment awaits.

Any problems here are also virtual-world problems: a job that isn’t always meaningful, the aggravations of rush hour, an irritating co-worker, a boss who doesn’t get it, slow service, omnipresent trash and urban decay.

Chances are good that from time to time you’ve wanted to escape from these two virtual worlds, and venture into the world of nature. Away from crowds – in mountains., at the beach. Closer to home, perhaps, in parklands. Amid trees and waterfalls; grasslands and meadows. Enjoying wildlife from insects and birds to megafauna – foxes, or deer, or maybe even the occasional bear in the distance. Watching porpoises gracefully break the ocean surface. But even here there’s an element of virtual reality. These visits are on your own terms. At a time and place, and for a duration, of your choosing. In good weather. Hiking, or perhaps camping, with just the right lightweight gear, and the provision needed for a day or two, or perhaps even glamping.

The real world we actually live on, for the most part obscured by these carefully constructed layers of virtual reality, is altogether different. On this real world, we’re spinning on the Earth’s axis at a speed of a few hundred miles an hour, even as the Earth rotates around the sun at 7000 mph, and the sun orbits around our galaxy at a speed six times faster still (and that’s saying nothing about the speed of our galaxy relative to other galaxies careening through the universe).

Our vehicle of choice for this joyride? For hitchhiking across the hostile, dark, absolute-zero-freezing vacuum of the universe as we’re pelted by everything from asteroids to cosmic rays?

An open-air convertible.

One that just happens to weigh 6×1021 tons. A planet. A planet that lives in the moment – makes no future plans but simply hurtles through space wherever gravitational forces might want to take it instant-by-instant. A planet that for now happens to track a Goldilocks-perfect path, just the right distance from a star that chooses to be friendly and heat us just the right bit.

But this Earth is not a sleeping planet. It’s restless, agitated, and does much if not most of its business through extreme events. It’s constantly shivering, quaking. Most of those tremors are of no account, but every so often it moves violently enough to shift its rotation axis by 4” and to throw the entire nation of Japan eight feet or so, as it did in the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. (6×1021 tons are not to be ignored!) The Earth also belches; on occasion volcanic eruptions cover the skies with so much ash that we experience a year-without-a-summer. (That’s today’s older, senescent planet; in its younger days, those volcanic eruptions could and did cause mass extinctions.) And its surface features a staggering array of violence: lightning and tornadoes, ice storms, cycles of drought…

… and flood.

Such as Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than a year’s worth of rain over Texas in less than a week.

In these circumstances, the real world breaks into, trumps, upends, suspends that virtual reality. The disruption is total. Familiar behaviors and practices, appropriate for any ordinary day, are now life-threatening. The houses that protected us and the cars that carried us become deathtraps. The powerlines that had kept the virtual world humming are now down, hidden underwater, electrocuting any hapless enough to encounter them. Chemical plants and refineries first fail, then explode. The water mains that had been life-giving now carry toxicity and disease. No time for dithering, and no mulligans. Seconds matter. They may be all you have to choose what you will save and what gets left behind. Staying alive becomes back-breakingly strenuous, when you’re wading or maybe even swimming, not in an Olympic pool but on what used to be your neighborhood street, now a cesspool of your neighbor’s junk and worse – while supporting a child or children, struggling to keep them above the water, fighting the currents and the eddies.

How are we behaving on this joy ride? More like unthinking teenagers than wise adults. If our planet is indeed living in the moment then, so it appears, are we. To complete the metaphor: we’re gobbling up the food and drink we’ve found, staining the seat covers with ketchup and mustard, tossing the waste cups and wrappings wherever. We’re bickering with each other and throwing an occasional French fry or even a punch or jab, always close to the threshold separating playful from vicious. We’re situationally oblivious. When the car heads off the road toward a tree, we’re unprepared.


Which brings us to C. S. Lewis. Our bond with Earth shares much in common with Susan’s eventual relationship with Aslan.

To start: our connection with Earth is not merely neutral; it’s good. We have rapport. Throughout human experience, Earth has been just the resource we needed and still need today. In part by celestial circumstance (we know enough astronomy these days to know our position is rare), in part due to plant- and animal evolutionary development and fine-turning over millions of years, and in part reflecting our own impact on its atmosphere and ocean, the Earth and its location are ideal for us.

But like Aslan, the Earth is not safe. As a price for our growth in numbers and urbanization, we have to pay increasing amounts of attention to where and how we’ll sustain our food, water, and energy consumption. We have to be realistic about land use, building codes, and standards for critical infrastructure. When making decisions for the long haul we can’t afford the luxury of “feeling lucky.” The same threats that are unlikely in a given week or year or decade are inevitable over longer time spans. We have to do what grownups do – shoulder responsibility for maintaining safety and protecting property over the longer haul. That extends to protecting the value of ecosystem services on which we depend (the uptake of rain and floodwaters by forests and wetlands comes to mind).

Amidst the still-building tragedy that is coastal Texas we hear calls from our leaders and from experts to this effect. The lessons of Houston are no different from the lessons of New Orleans. As a nation, we have to give priority to putting Houston and Houstonians, and others, extending from Corpus Christi to Beaumont and Port Arthur, back on their feet. We can’t afford to rebuild just as before. We have to rebuild better.

Each passing day brings us one day closer to similar catastrophe in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle and points in between. Each passing day brings another increment of global warming, ratchets up sea-level rise, intensifies ocean acidification and worse. We don’t have the luxury of closing our eyes to these concerns.

It may sound daunting. But facing these challenges forthrightly can bring us together.

And we won’t be alone. If you’ve read the story, you know we can count on Aslan to help.

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Living on the REAL world: suffering and sorrow.

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
 For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.” –
Psalm 30:4-5 (NIV)

“Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart.” Ecclesiastes 7:3 (NET)

Just a few days in, Houstonians cope with agony and acute loss that already transcend description. At the same time every displaced or unsettled resident can see, with greater clarity hour by hour, the outline of the chronic suffering that lies ahead – not just for the next few days or weeks (that could be managed), but for years. The cheap phrase “life-changing experience” takes on new meaning – and for all too many – the form of oppressive, unbearable weight. This might be doubly true for that sub-community who had been uprooted from New Orleans by Katrina and relocated in Houston, and who now find themselves violently uprooted for the second time in only twelve years.

Meanwhile, the rest of America struggles to get its collective head around what has just happened. The geographical boundary and the social space separating existential catastrophe from normalcy is remarkably sharp – as illustrated forcefully by the side-by-side juxtaposition of those displaced by Harvey, and a swarm of emergency responders and embedded journalists, cycling back and forth between the disaster zone and (relative) calm – a virtual universe untouched by Harvey but for the secondhand experience provided by broadcast and social media.

We can only hope that those bearing the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding will encounter – not merely encounter, but reinvent anew – the kind of grassroots communities that have developed informally and organically in prior disasters, as described by Daniel Aldrich, Rebecca Solnit, and Eric Klinenberg. Too often, disasters only further aggravate pre-existing social ills. But these and other authors found multiple instances of something truly remarkable. Disasters that have broken down social barriers. Catastrophes that have turned cities formerly little more than clusters of distrusting strangers into true communities with a shared sense of “we’re all in this together,” at least for brief periods. Ms. Solnit has a most compelling title for this: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Already there is some evidence for such community building in Harvey. An example: the “Cajun Navy” of small flat-bottomed boats marshaled from nearby Texas and Louisiana in response to social media, and responsible for so many of the early rescues even as larger-government-based forces were struggling to organize.

In a similar manner, we can pray that the actual Harvey actors and agents – the participants, those caught in ground zero – will recognize, when they look in life’s rear-view mirror, that the anguish lasted only for a season, and was ultimately replaced by joy (keeping in mind that the opposite of joy is not sorrow but the lack of hope).

Psalm 30:4-5 is for them, not you and me.

What, then, about the rest of us, the mere spectators?

Well, first and foremost, we can’t merely stand idly by. Neither can we show up en masse, adding to the disruption and the burden of those struggling to regroup.  Instead, we need to hope that government at federal, state, and local levels, in partnership with both local and national private enterprise, can develop a framework for action and a response that will foster recovery and along the way quickly restore “agency” to people’s lives, individually and collectively — the power to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their recovery, rather than passively submit plans and actions imposed by others. Such a framework would allow us to contribute through private donations to NGO’s and through established government and corporate programs to enable the effort.

In fact, we shouldn’t just hope our governments and leaders will do that; we should insist that they give us means to make our inclinations to help effective. We want and have a right to expect that where there has been recent partisan wrangling, our leaders will also develop Ms. Solnit’s community and together give priority to recovery for Houstonians. We ought to see them putting aside the recent toxic, polarized bickering about tax code restructuring, immigration, health care, the national debt ceiling, or government shutdown. Rediscovering our common national interest at the same time we help Houstonians get back on their feet? How cool could that be?

But there’s a second challenge to the vast majority of us who are spectators. Harvey and what we see on the screen every hour shocks us into realizing we’ve been grossly, inexcusably complacent about far worse suffering on far larger scales across our world and even here at home. We’ve become inured to the suffering across the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Turkey to Yemen to Syria to Libya to Nigeria. We shrug our shoulders at the oppression of the North Korean people and political dissenters in China by their leaders. We read about gang warfare across Central America and the thousands killed and hardly blink an eye. And we turn our backs on the rise of neo-Nazis, the continuing violence done to ethnic minorities, LGBT, and even women here in the United States. Even as we’re stunned by events in Houston, we realize to our shame that we’ve allowed ourselves to become anesthetized to these other abominations.

That’s where Ecclesiastes 7:3 comes in.  The world’s problems will not vanish overnight. But we needn’t allow ourselves to be desensitized to them.

May joy (that is, hope) come in the morning – for Houston’s suffering thousands upon thousands,  and for us all.

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“Forecasting the weather” vs. “protecting life and property?”

A big leap.

Just how big a leap? And why? Why is it so difficult to go beyond a forecast of the weather, an inherently chaotic system, to using that forecast to protect life and property? What makes that seemingly incremental step so monumental?

It’s the shift from a purely physical system to an essentially human one. Humans are individually and corporately far more complex.

Intractably so, according to Richard Bookstaber, an academic economist, who’s also turned his hand to finance and hedge fund management in the world’s markets. He’s just published a new book, entitled The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction. His book touches on weather (and even space weather!) a bit, but his main focus is the question: why can’t economics predict financial crises (e.g., 2007-2008)? He concludes that economic models are flawed in four basic respects.

  1. They can’t handle emergent phenomena – the way that the aggregate of human interactions can evolve in ways unrelated to individual intentions (his favorite examples are stampedes and traffic bunch-ups).
  2. The models fail to account for the ways history comes into play. The atmosphere’s future behavior will be determined solely by its initial state – not the prior circumstances that brought it there. By contrast, for human beings, history (experience) – not some aggregated cultural history, but unique individual histories – make a critical difference in behavior. Traditional economic models fail to capture this non-ergodic feature.
  3. Social behavior is not just uncertain – it’s radically uncertain, defying model characterization by the usual statistical approaches.
  4. The models confront what he calls “computational irreducibility”; the future is so complex, and the effect of human interactions so unfathomable, that people cannot possibly create models to anticipate the outcome.

Hmm. At this point, you and I might reasonably have two questions. First, what do attempts to model financial crises have to do with making weather forecasts suitable for impact-based decision support? Well, it’s not a perfect fit, but human and institutional decisions based on projections about financial markets and coming booms or busts would appear to be in some sense similar to decisions based on information about weather opportunity and risk. These same challenges face us. When we go beyond characterization of the atmosphere per se to messaging that attempts to help people make decisions (“turn around, don’t drown,” “break the grip of the rip,” “in case of earthquake, climb to higher ground,” “tomorrow you won’t have to irrigate,” and “for the next three hours, wind and solar energy will supply xx% of the electrical demand,” and more), we’re in essence trying to forecast not only the weather, but also the human response to a few words of warning delivered as a text or orally, or an image conveying the same content. Hardly surprising we find this difficult.

Second, doesn’t modeling of weather share some of the same four complexities described above? Yes, weather modelers might make such a case that to some extent we deal already with #’s 1,3, and 4, allowing for some differences of opinion we might all have with respect to details. But #2 is more problematic. You could argue that any given state of the atmosphere says much about where it was at the previous moment, but it’s possible to proceed without delving into that past. Moreover, it might be harder to make a case about “individual differences” in experience, or even what that means in the atmospheric instance.

But Mr. Bookstaber brings up a fifth issue, a pièce de résistance: George Soros’ idea of “reflexivity.” Think of this as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle on steroids. According to Heisenberg, the mere act of observing a physical particle’s position increases the observer’s uncertainty about the particle’s velocity; in turn, measuring its velocity increases uncertainty with respect to its position. Soros notes that economic actors – individuals, banks, corporations, et al. – avidly read economic predictions or central-bank signals of intent, and then actively, intentionally change their behavior in ways that suit their purposes but in the process render those forecasts less accurate, and policy shifts less useful. He uses an example from real estate: the belief that housing prices always rise makes buyers more willing to pay higher prices, and financing more readily available; hence house prices rise.

We see similar instances of this in meteorology. The finding that evacuation orders in the face of an oncoming hurricane find resistance in the threatened area; as many as half of those ordered to leave may choose to stay. At the same time, many who were asked to stay home instead hit the road, needlessly and counterproductively clogging escape routes for others. Another: viewed from the standpoint of a single homeowner facing a tornado strike on his/her home in fifteen minutes, flight might seem to make sense. But that fails to account for the actions of all other neighbors; if everyone tries to leave, the resulting traffic snarl increases the vulnerability for all.

With respect to economic forecasts of financial crises, Mr. Bookstaber offers an alternative to the economic models currently in favor. He calls this “agent-based economics,” in which the modeler doesn’t assume that all the actors in the financial markets are the same. Instead Mr. Bookstaber advocates building models that describe the major categories of players in financial markets (banks, central banks, hedge funds, big investors, et al.) and the rudiments of their goals and ways and means of engagement, and then running the models much as traffic modelers attempt to capture the features of traffic bunching. He doesn’t attempt to model precisely how the next financial crisis will unfold, but instead runs his models numerous times to build up what he calls “narratives” that capture the range of ways events might unfold. (To the meteorologist-reader, this is reminiscent of what ensemble forecasts do for us.)

The book is short. It is well written. The examples are clear, easily understood, and the arguments compelling and mind-expanding. A good use of a couple of hours for anyone working at the nexus of meteorology, social science, and weather services.

Summing up? The shift to impact-based decision support from forecasts of physical weather conditions per se is a big leap.

Like going to “lightning” from “lightning bug.”

In the next post, a look at the policy implications.

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