I’ve been throwing out variations on this line since I first saw this strip, and I’ve been having quite a few “the more history you learn…” moments in the past few weeks because of the hurricane.
On Saturday, the Press of Atlantic City reported that NOAA classified Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone right before it made landfall in NJ, a decision which is estimated to save homeowners/cost insurance companies millions of dollars in deductibles. NOAA isn’t a political body, but the classification is a fortuitous one for those facing insurance claims for their destroyed property, and it was echoed by NJ Governor Chris Christie when he issued an executive order prohibiting insurance companies from charging hurricane deductibles. (For a really fascinating discussion of the relationship between disasters and flood insurance, see parts II and III of Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God.) Though most of the article was about the impact of this call on insurance claims, the article briefly digresses into talking about what it means for a scientific body to be in charge – however indirectly – of a huge financial decision:
“If this was a court case, you’d have multiple meteorologists on the stand,” said Campbell H. Wallace, an attorney for the Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey.
There is no court case. Insurance companies in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have agreed to waive costly hurricane deductibles, which could have run in the millions of dollars along the three-state area.
Wallace said the insurance industry accepts the fact that the National Weather Service is “legally tasked” with making such determinations. He said meteorologists are judged by their peers and credibility is paramount to them.
The Wallace quote reminds me of another apparently ancillary fact about the Atlantic hurricane – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed upwards of eight thousand people. Although meteorologists, both in the U.S. and in Cuba registered concerns about a storm headed for the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Bureau’s policy was to limit the use of the word “hurricane” in official correspondence, because it might engender widespread panic. On top of all of the other reasons for the high Galvestonian death toll (the misguided belief that hurricanes never struck that part of the Gulf, little way for ships to communicate observations from the middle of a storm, buildings that were particularly susceptible to storm damage) some of the blame must go, and has gone, to whomever made the decision that “hurricane” was just too dangerous a word for the American people.
In some ways, what is happening with insurance companies today is the flipside of what happened with the NWB and Galveston – in defining what counts as a hurricane, and what is “merely” a post-tropical cyclone (the two can be differentiated by as little as 1 mph difference in maximum wind speeds measured on the ground) the NOAA is saving – intentionally or no – thousands of people millions of dollars in total.