January 28, 2015
In the past few days, the clamor over Winter Storm Juno's imminent devastation of New England grew to outright hysteria. Blizzard conditions would consume the Northeast, our sage and trusted government officials warned us, and in a few short hours, homes and streets throughout the region would be crushed under the two to three feet of pounding snow that would be Juno's tragic legacy.
Nearly 8,000 flights in the region were cancelled. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio advised his people that it could be the biggest storm ever, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made heavy use of the trending "#blizzardof2015" hashtag on Twitter to alert citizens of the impending tempest and remind them to check their emergency supplies. For the first time in its history, the New York City subway system was shut down due to snow. A state of emergency was declared in anticipation of the monster storm's arrival, and travel on city streets — and sidewalks, even — was banned for all but emergency vehicles and personnel. Citizens were informed that to ignore the ban would be a punishable offense.
And here is a picture of Times Square taken at roughly 8:30 AM the morning after the onslaught.
As you can see, the streets and sidewalks are entirely passable. They're fairly deserted because the city essentially shut down. But the multiple feet they predicted in reality materialized as about six inches falling on Central Park. Granted, areas east of NYC and many parts of Massachusetts were pummeled. But all it took was the storm to veer a few miles off the plotted course and the city was all but passed by.
Two weeks ago, no one had any idea that there was even the threat of a storm in the late evening of January 26, 2015. A few short hours before it arrived, forecasts by experts indicated an epic event that would likely warrant a FEMA mobilization. Yet, we really think we understand the weather and global climate.
At least one such expert exhibited the humility to apologize the next morning.
Not to fear, Gary, word on the street is that all is forgiven. Reports from multiple news outlets included the same quote from the same security guard at the same unspecified 33rd Street building, as if he single-handedly represented the shared sentiments of 8.5 million city dwellers. He says he "think[s] it's a good thing that the city prepared New Yorkers for the worst even if it didn’t turn out as bad," and that the "over-coverage" of the storm allowed people to be ready and prepared.
Here we have the "better safe than sorry," argument. But are there no other consequences of "over-coverage," a term that's obviously synonymous with "exaggeration"? Is the public's trust in government officials a fixed and unmovable thing? Does it not erode when those we elect to lead us display overbearing and alarmist behavior?
And what about next time? What if a real storm and a real tragedy is on its way (#theactualblizzardof2015, perhaps?), but since we've heard all the apocalyptic hyperbole before, we're not so inclined to listen? How many times must the boy cry wolf before the townsfolk no longer pay him any heed?
To presume a complete understanding and dominance of highly complex systems — like the weather or global supply chains — is to exhibit the same hubris the ancient Greeks warned us of millennia ago. The lesson to take from events such as these is that when confronted with the unknown, acknowledge your ignorance and proceed with objectivity, humility, and restraint. That doesn't indicate a lack of strength or resolve or prudence. But it does indicate common sense.
That is, of course, at least until the shit really hits the fan. Then the only appropriate response is to panic and run about screaming bloody murder.