What Can We Learn From Hurricane Ian?

Zur Shapira

By Zur Shapira

In August 2014, Hurricane Charley was on a predicted path to hit Tampa, and an evacuation order was issued there. But Charley, a Category 4 hurricane, veered south and hit Fort Myers, whose inhabitants were shocked by the negative surprise and the destruction that Charley left. Several business people from Tampa were unhappy about the false alarm and the lost business due to the tourists who left when the evacuation was announced, and some blamed the authorities for causing those losses. Following Hurricane Ian last week, Fort Myers residents were once again surprised and astonished, but the people in Tampa were thankful for the same change in Ian’s track while having strong sympathy with the residents of Fort Myers.

Professional forecasters know that it is impossible to predict exactly where a hurricane will make landfall, and the error can be up to 100 miles in each direction in the last 24 hours before landing. The dilemma of officials is that they have to choose between two possible errors, either calling an evacuation that becomes a false alarm or not calling for an evacuation with horrendous consequences of a hurricane. The latter decision was made, for example, in October 2001 when Hurricane Irene was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico — but given the past two “false alarms” in Florida  (Hurricane Floyd and Tropical Storm Harvey both in 1999), local officials in both counties were reluctant to issue another evacuation for Irene, feeling that they could not politically afford to issue a third “unnecessary” evacuation.

Professional forecasters are risk averse, and despite improvement in the ability to predict the path of hurricanes, they anticipate the possibility of errors. And as one of them said, “‘If there is an error to be made, I would much rather be talking to someone who is mad because we told them to leave than to a widow we didn’t tell to leave and [her] house is 40 miles out in the ocean.”

Read the full The Hill article.
Zur Shapira is the William R. Berkley Professor of Entrepreneurship and  Management at New York University Stern School of Business.