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Weather Nerd

Get off the road?

August 4th, 2008 - 1:13 pm

Over on his “SciGuy” blog, the Houston Chronicle‘s Eric Berger published a post earlier today titled, “What can we expect from Edouard, and when can we expect it?” In it, he posted the inland wind-speed forecast for the Houston area, which — assuming Edouard makes landfall as “a strong tropical storm” tomorrow morning — calls for sustained winds at Houston Hobby Airport topping out around 45 mph, with gusts to 55 mph or so. (In Galveston, the forecasted winds are higher, peaking around 70 mph.)

“What does this mean?” Berger asked rhetorically, then answered: “The winds should cause little structural damage, but they will be strong enough — where they exceed 40 mph — such that only emergency vehicles should be on the road. I would expect most non-emergency businesses in Harris County to be closed on Tuesday.”

That comment triggered a furious response from a commenter on this blog, Ubu Roi of Houblog, who wrote:

Eric Berger just lost my respect, which given his employer, was already not terribly high. He’s calling for all non-emergency vehicles to be off the roads and businesses to close — for what will probably be a high-end tropical storm. That’s just absurd, and probably nothing but breathless “you’ve got to stay tuned right here!” hype of the sort that fed the Rita evacuation.

Mayor Bill White has already stated that the city will remain open for business.

“It is important to note that the City is open for business as usual both today and tomorrow. All employees are expected to remain at their jobs today and report to work as usual tomorrow.

We will continue to monitor conditions throughout the day and night and expect to have a further update shortly after 4:30 p.m. today.”

Ubu later elaborated in a post on his blog, quoting a lengthier excerpt of Mayor White’s statement (which was apparently an e-mail to city employees) and then adding: “This is a minimal storm that may not even make hurricane status, and to call for business closures and all non-official traffic to stay off the streets is nothing but over-hype on the part of the press.”

I posed Ubu’s criticism to Berger in the comments on his blog. Berger responded: “People aren’t supposed to drive in winds that exceed 40 mph. As presently forecast, winds will be above 40 mph tomorrow for most of the Houston area. I’m simply reminding people that they ought not drive in tropical storm-force winds.” He later added, in response to another critic: “Winds, especially south of I-10, are presently forecast to exceed 40 mph. Emergency officials say it’s unsafe to drive in winds higher than 40 mph.”

Given Ubu’s previous comment that “minimal hurricanes are mildly dangerous…but I’ve driven to work in the middle of one, in a dinky Chevette,” perhaps it’s not too surprising that he disagrees with the conventional wisdom that “it’s unsafe to drive in winds higher than 40 mph.” In a subsequent comment here, Ubu clarifies:

Maybe I’m being unfair to Eric but I can’t see telling people to stay off the roads in conditions no worse than a nasty thunderstorm. Do I like driving through one? No. Do I think it’s safe? Not entirely. Do I think it’s better to take the penalties if I don’t go to work? No. Do I expect [Berger] to say, “Hey, no problem, drive in to work tomorrow?” No, because the first idiot to drive his car into a flooded road will sue the Chron. He doesn’t have to go so far the other way though, and that’s why I’m critical of the hype.

I think the problem here is we’re adopting a binary solution: Drive/Don’t Drive. It needs to be a bit more flexible:

1. Drive Normally,
2. Drive with Caution,
3. Don’t Drive Unless Necessary,
4. Absolute Lives-at-Risk Emergency Only,
5. Stay Home Idiot.

Given the timing for the wind and rain increases, for Galveston island, it’s a 2 or 3 there, but inland, in Houston proper, it’s a 2 if you can get in to work before the storm . . . As for emergency officials, their statements are inherently conservative because they have to deal with the failures of judgement. Too many, and they’ll be overwhelmed, and they also risk losing their people trying to rescue persons trapped by weather.

One problem with Ubu’s analysis, in my view, is what he assumes by saying, “Do I think it’s better to take the penalties if I don’t go to work? No.” Berger’s statements are geared just as much toward employers as toward employees. By encouraging a consensus that it’s safer to stay home, Berger is encouraging employers to not penalize workers for staying home. And, conversely, Ubu (and, more importantly, Mayor White) are effectively discouraging such leniency. Commenter Shreela made this point on Berger’s blog, stating that “many employers are making their employees come into work — like a few have posted here already — based on Mayor White’s announcement.”

I, personally, am in the “err on the side of caution” camp here, especially now that Edouard is intensifying. Driving in 45 mph winds (with 55 mph gusts) probably won’t kill you — well, unless you get hit by a particularly nasty piece of flying shrapnel — but should people feel obligated to drive in it, or risk getting penalized by their employer? I think not, especially when it’s possible that Edouard’s winds could unexpectedly be higher, if it strengthens overnight, or even as it’s coming ashore. Remember what happened with Bertha in Bermuda, when local authorities insisted all day that it’d be “business as usual,” only to close the Bermuda Causeway during the evening rush hour because of an unexpected 5-mph increase in wind speed. It’s unwise to cut things that close. Better to be safe than sorry.

In any case, as noted by commenter Mii2 on Berger’s blog, Mayor White’s e-mail was sent at 12:14 PM CDT, and it promised an update “shortly after 4:30.” Thus, in Mii2′s words, “I believe the Mayor will likely make a FINAL determination on whether the City is open for business between 4:30-5:00 pm.” (That’d be between 5:30-6:00 EDT.)

P.S. In comments on this post, “bigdaddy3lk” writes:

Mayor White is trying his dead-level best to avoid repeating the mass hysteria of Hurricane Rita. His public declaration of the need for mass evacuations during that event led to many problems and, indirectly, to the loss of human life. So, to protect his public image, he is under-reacting to this storm.

In the grand scheme of things, what will it matter if Houston and surrounding areas stop for one day?

Don’t be foolish just to prove you’re not a chicken.

Sounds right to me.

Meanwhile, another commenter, Barkley, makes a good point:

It seems to me that all the discussion about the risk of high winds is largely beside the point. The big risk in the Houston area comes from flooding. People in Houston have drowned after severe thunderstorms (when they attempted to drive through deep water collected in underpasses).

UPDATE: Ubu Roi posted a lengthy discussion of the issue on his own blog. And then he posted an update revealing that Mayor White has changed his mind, and has ordered all “non-essential” city employees to stay home tomorrow.

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