Why Don’t We Listen?

Imagine for a moment that your state spends $100 billion each year. The nation spends roughly $3.5 trillion each year. Now, what if I told you that between your state and the nation, you could spend about $10 billion to insure against $100 billion or more in future losses? Does that sound like a good deal? What if I told you that in any given year though, you only have about a 0.2% chance of seeing that event you’re insuring against? Seems like a low risk. Do you think that $10 billion would be better spent elsewhere or not spent at all?

This is the issue Southeast Texas is grappling with.

On Thursday, one of the most important pieces of journalism written about the risk of a worst case scenario hurricane in the Houston area was published. The Texas Tribune/ProPublica mashup called “Hell and High Water” is worth your time. It describes, in detail, how a worst case scenario storm would play out in Houston. Without any mitigation or protective measures, the economic, human, and environmental cost of a worst case hurricane would be utterly catastrophic.

I read stories like this a lot. I’m a meteorologist. I work in energy. I’m pretty well acquainted with the concept of risk. And the more I read these stories, the more I ask myself: What in the hell are we doing?

It’s 2016. I fully appreciate the skeptical world we live in, where cable news is shouting at us 24/7 in hyperbolic terms about the next big threat. There is an element of hyperbole that exists in media, and  yes, sometimes in science too. Objectively, this idea of a worst case scenario storm is not hyperbole, not in the least. If Hurricane Rita in 2005 had tracked further south and west, or if Ike had been a tad stronger or bigger and tracked a tad further south and west, Houston would have been in a bad, bad place.

Yes, that’s 2 storms in the last 11 hurricane seasons that had the potential to be a worst case scenario for Houston. It’s not difficult to get monster hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. This area has been hit time and again by big ones. The concept isn’t new. It will continue.

Someone might argue that it’s just that “global warming alarmism.” Here’s the thing. Even if climate change weren’t real (it is). Even if sea levels weren’t rising (they are). This would *still* be as serious a concern as it is today.

So again, I ask: What in the hell are we doing? From this article, there are multiple groups spending millions of dollars to conduct multiple studies on this issue. And no one is committed to implementing any one of these plans. We have the information we need to get this thing moving. But what do we do? Because no major storm has threatened us since Ike, we sit on our hands, dawdle, and just hope and pray it never happens? People don’t see true risks until they’re realities. And over time, interest, concern, and motivation to act fades. Why are we still doing this in 2016, when we have the technology and capability to SEE risks before they happen? Think about that. We have abilities to understand and protect against disasters that even 50 years ago weren’t possible. It’s borderline miraculous.

Everything’s about saving money and gearing up for the next election. We see candidates for president arguing about the size of their hands and who can get married. Newsflash: We have clear evidence that we can mitigate potentially hundreds of billions in losses and unspeakable environmental and human catastrophe for what amounts to a drop in the bucket in terms of what we spend in this state and country. It would be great if we actually acted proactively and did something for the actual good of the people for a change. We have an incredible gift to see trouble coming. We also have a way to help minimize the toll. Why throw that away?

Read the article. Let it sink in. Then let’s get real about this risk.

I’m on Twitter: @mattlanza

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