There’s a 13,000-pound buoy on the South Carolina Coast.
Hurricane Irma brought it ashore to Hilton Head Island on Monday, September 11th, having moved it from the mouth of Port Royal Sound—more than 8 miles away.
You might be forgiven for thinking: “Hurricane Irma impacted South Carolina that much?”
Scientists will be studying Hurricane Irma for years, but are already in agreement on this: this storm not only wrought devastation across a wide geography but did so with some absolutely unexpected quirks. The effects of Irma were most difficult to predict.
For instance, in advance of Irma, the forecast track had the storm journeying up the east coast of Florida with the potential for a catastrophic hit on the heavily populated South Florida area. Later tracks had the storm moving west, and journeying up the gulf coast of Florida—the track that the storm actually took (mostly) after crossing over the Florida Keys.
So the Keys, Naples, and Ft. Meyers did receive nasty hits. But even though Irma churned right over the Tampa Bay area, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn stated that the situation was not as bad as it could have been: “What we feared the most was the surge,” said Buckhorn.
And why wasn’t the surge as bad as expected? Mostly because the waters of Tampa Bay actually receded ahead of the storm. Irma was strong enough while moving through South Florida that its outer winds pushed the water out of Tampa Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico.
[dropcap type=”1″ letter=”F”][/dropcap] or a few hours, those in the area had the extraordinary chance to walk on the floor of the bay. Parts of it were six feet below normal tide, which was almost certainly a good thing: USA Today reported that the emptying of Tampa Bay may have saved the city a lot of headaches.
National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Shiveley said if water from the bay had not receded, storm surge in the city would have been much higher.
While the news media focused on the impact of Irma on South Florida, and then the west coast, something bad was happening upstate: storm surge, heavy rain and the north-flowing St. John River becoming swollen to cause some of the worst flooding ever into Jacksonville, Florida— this even though Irma was on the opposite end of the state, with the eye at least 80 miles away and weakened to a tropical storm. In fact, the highest water levels reported were hundreds of miles from the storm in Jacksonville and Savannah, Georgia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“You can call it bizarre; I might call it unusual or unique,” said Rick Luettich, Director of the Institute of Marine Studies at the University of North Carolina. “… it spanned two coastlines that were in different-facing directions. As a result, you got the opposite behavior on both coastlines.”
It’s likely the entire state of Florida avoided an even worse disaster that might have happened due to the southwestern eyewall of Irma being broken up by high winds near Cuba, or theorized MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel.
Irma definitely behaved in an unexpected manner. And with Irma, as is typically done, people and the media tended to focus on the reported top sustained winds. This is the primary factor people tend to use when evaluating the threat of a hurricane. But the storm’s size, its potential for flooding, and the landscape that it will impact are other major factors.
A study by Vox surveyed data from 3,850 people in coastal communities, asking whether hurricanes impacting their communities had been getting stronger, were less strong, or were about as strong as in the past. The study found that maximum wind speed associated with the last hurricane to make landfall in their county was the single most powerful predictor of how the coastal residents surveyed were likely to perceive changes in hurricane strength.
In short, people who experienced higher maximum wind speeds in the last hurricane which impacted them nearby were more likely to think hurricanes are becoming stronger. This is a psychological tendency called “availability heuristic,” which is basically a mental shortcut to the most “available” or recent information.
One thing is for certain: people’s perception of a threat is not primarily based on true analytics.
Risk perceptions have a strong effect on actions taken for risk reduction and mitigation. And if a hurricane hasn’t hit in the recent past, that will tend to lead to complacency. This is a real challenge for planning for a disaster on a city-wide or community-wide scale—because people become most receptive to protecting themselves against the effects of a damaging event only after such an event.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Being forewarned is being forearmed, and recognizing human tendencies to misjudge the potential for disaster and fail to protect against it can lead some to more analytical thinking: just like the Boy Scouts of America, it’s good to Be Prepared.
If you are in charge of a business, or a municipal government entity, or any kind of organization with data that is important, it’s your job to evaluate potential disaster and mitigate risk. And if your vital data is already being handled by a Cloud Document Management system, you’re doing good. And if it’s not—you’re likely wishing that it was.
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How confident would your customers feel in doing business with you?
How many people are depending on your to keep their data secure?
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