When an Imprecise Forecast Could Hurt the Forecasters

One thing is for sure: No New Yorkers can say they weren’t warned about the potentially devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy and the need to take precautions. Yet some bristled at the cascades of warnings that went on for days. This is New York, after all.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Those prone to bravado puffed out their chests and refused to leave areas threatened with flooding, no matter how often the president, the governor and the mayor told them that they were endangering not only themselves but also rescue workers prepared to sacrifice themselves in an emergency.

The daring — or, if you prefer, the foolish — could cite recent history: the experience with Hurricane Irene last year. The city was supposed to be hit hard then, and other parts of the state relatively spared. Instead, the city squeaked by with little damage while others were pounded. For those disinclined by nature to trust authority, it was evidence that the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.

You could hear that reaction in some places as Hurricane Sandy approached. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for one, had no patience for the notion that “Hurricane Irene was a bust.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mr. Cuomo said at one of his public appearances on Monday. Hurricane Irene, he said, inflicted “a tremendous amount of damage.”

“The projection on where the damage was going to be was off,” he said, “but that storm wreaked havoc in people’s lives.”

Here’s a question, then, for future storms. Hurricane Sandy was every bit as fierce as predicted. But when projections are off, can meteorologists be taken to court for needlessly disrupting some people’s lives and for lulling others into a false sense of safety?

If Consolidated Edison can be deemed responsible when power is knocked out for long periods, and if the Army Corps of Engineers can be held liable in court (as it was) for its failings in Hurricane Katrina, might the weather people not reasonably take the fall when their forecasts are off?

We’re in no way suggesting this would be desirable, but the idea is not as outlandish as you may think. There is a disturbing precedent, set only a week ago. It isn’t local, but it ought not be ignored.

In Italy, a judge found seven earthquake experts guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in prison for having given inadequate warnings to L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region east of Rome, where 309 people were killed and thousands of others left homeless by an earthquake in April 2009. The defendants, most of them seismologists and geologists, were also ordered to pay damages of more than $10 million.

There had been frequent tremors in the months before the big one. Naturally, local people were nervous. The scientists, members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, met six days before the quake, and concluded that the smaller tremors did not signal grave danger.

Prosecutors argued to the judge’s satisfaction that this reassuring assessment did not reflect the true risks and it rendered L’Aquila residents helpless to make informed decisions about whether to stay in their homes or leave.

Understandably, the ruling, which the defendants vow to appeal, sent scientist heads spinning everywhere. Are scientists to be imprisoned for not predicting the imponderable with precision? Nature, a science journal, despaired in an editorial that “the verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous.”

Luciano Maiani, president of the Italian risks commission, warned that the ruling would inhibit scientific experts from offering their professional opinions for fear of criminal repercussions. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Maiani said.

That may not be quite accurate. Is there a more litigious people than Americans, especially in this city that has more lawyers per square inch than any spot on the planet?

Over the years, people have died and billions in property damage have been lost as a result of inaccurate weather forecasts — and bear in mind that meteorology is supposed to be a more precise science than seismology.

With a ruling like the one in L’Aquila as an international precedent, can we really be sure that the day won’t come when a meteorologist here is put in the dock for the crime of failing to get it exactly right?


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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