In an affluent country, government can afford to do many unnecessary things, and do them in complex and impressive ways. One example in the United States is the predilection for predicting the number of hurricanes in the upcoming season.
Every spring comes a reminder to prepare for the “hurricane season” starting in June. Predicting the number of hurricanes for the year is supposed to help.
A publication coauthored by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee stated that, “Seasonal forecasts of tropical cyclone activity are used by corporations and governments to better prepare for hurricane activity and generate considerable interest among the general public, thereby prompting greater awareness.”
It is necessary to prepare for hurricanes. Stilted beach houses help minimize storm-wave damage; storm shutters reduce wind damage, and hurricane insurance helps rebuild. It is necessary to predict as accurately and as early as possible where and when an existing storm will hit and to predict its strength.
Americans living near the coast care — for three days to a week — when a hurricane forms and heads their way. It is not necessary to predict in May, and especially the preceding December, how many hurricanes will occur from May to November.
Who prepared for Hurricane Katrina? Who pays any attention, besides the press, until a tropical storm forms and heads toward the United States? Do fewer tourists plan trips to the beach in a year when hurricane forecasts are above normal? Why should they? Hurricanes appear so randomly, it doesn’t pay to focus on them until one exists.
A study using the 1990 census showed that 85 percent of coastal residents from Maine to Texas had never experienced a direct hit by a major hurricane. That number may be higher today because millions more have moved to coastal areas since 1990, a clear indication of the lack of concern about hurricane danger.
Hurricane “seasonal outlooks” are both unreliable and ineffective. In just three out of nine years from 2002 to 2010 did the number of hurricanes fall within the range predicted by the NOAA in May. In 2002, the prediction was for six to eight hurricanes; just four occurred. The May 2005 outlook was for a 70 percent chance of an above-normal hurricane season and a projection of seven to nine hurricanes. There were 15, including Katrina, the most infamous and destructive in decades. In May 2006 the NOAA predicted an 80 percent chance of an above-normal hurricane season with eight to 10 hurricanes. There were five.
Apparently hurricane seers are now convinced that the normal seasons are past: During the 12-year period from 1999-2010, NOAA did not predict a single below-normal season, even though three of the seasons turned out to be below normal.
Then there is the uncertainty of where hurricanes will go. An active season doesn’t mean damage. The 2010 season had 12 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin — twice as many as normal — but not a single one struck the United States. Hurricanes have made U.S. landfall in only two of the last 11 years.
A 2006 NOAA publication of hurricanes since 1851 reveals how infrequently some locations on the “hurricane coast” (south Texas to Maine) get hit. NOAA observed that Tampa had not experienced a major hurricane for 86 years. Miami, which expects a major hurricane every nine years, on average, has been struck once since 1950 (in 1992). The last direct hurricane hit on Savannah was more than 30 years ago (1979); Brunswick was last hit in 1928.
A 1995 U.S. Senate report expressed concern for increasing severity of hurricanes, based on life and property. A 1996 scientific report concluded, however, that, “The most recent years of 1991 through 1994 have experienced the quietest tropical cyclone activity on record.” Hurricane-related deaths have averaged 113 people per year since 1990, about as many die in traffic wrecks each day. More people die of herpes and cancer of the tongue each year; 150 times as many shoot themselves.
Property damage has increased in the past few decades, largely because of the increase in quantity and value of coastal properties. That increase reflects the low concern of those most at risk for loss.
With the risk fairly minimal and the forecasts so fickle, it’s not surprising that people continue to flock to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to live and play. Of course, far be it from government to let even a potential crisis go to waste.
Brown is a senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.”