We have lived in Florida for three decades, survived several hurricanes and never evacuated for any. We finally did this weekend for Irma. Doing so opened my eyes to a wide range of products and services that make hurricane survival and the recovery less painful. It will always be an incredibly traumatic and stressful process but it reminded me how much more uncomfortable it used to be just a few years ago.
Here’s how science and technology has helped
In The New Polymath I had a case study on the National Hurricane Center and the data they collect via satellites, buoy sensors, Hurricane Hunters and other technology. What has dramatically improved in the last few years is supercomputing power to crunch the data more frequently and the variety of forecast models like those from NOAA’s Global Forecast System (GFS), the European Center for Medium range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) and the UK Met Office. Short-term, the differences between the models is leading to confusion but the massive amount of human and machine power going into hurricane and other weather tracking can only make things better. They should allow for earlier evacuations, and even better, a decrease in panic evacuations.
Navigation is another area where data has proliferated. Irma led to the largest mass evacuation in US history and many of the drivers took to side roads after seeing clogged trunk roads on Waze and other navigation apps.
Post-Hurricane Andrew in 1992, building codes have become much more stringent. We have more cinder block masonry, and impact-resistant glass. Our roofs have shingles and fasteners designed to survive 130 mph winds. Storm shutters now come in motorized versions, accordion and other form factors and variety of materials. Walking around our neighborhood I saw very few shingles lying around but plenty of fallen branches and leaves and wished our trees had adopted the stricter codes themselves
Most towns in the path of Irma tweeted out evacuation instructions. I watched the Weather Channel nonstop on TV. I watched our local weather channel on the iPad in the car as we were evacuating. I got regular alerts by SMS from various governmental agencies. I posted regular status updates about our family on Facebook (and a friend, Bertrand Dussert saw one and arranged a hotel room, which we could not take advantage of) Good old radio kept millions informed. It was almost overwhelming – the information flow.
In the last decade we have seen a proliferation of shapes and voltage of batteries. With power at a premium with utility lines down, you appreciate cordless fans, chainsaws and other appliances.
The growth in RVs and camping activities has led to smaller, portable inventers (like the Yamaha EF1000iS which weighs just 27 lbs) and butane stoves. During hurricanes, they allow for at least some creature comforts which in the past required bulkier and more expensive generators.
The Wall Street Journal has an article on post-Irma fuel and goods logistics and you can discern the increase in velocity compared to a few years ago. FPL, a major utility in Florida reports power was restored to about 40 percent of customers impacted by Irma in just one day. In contrast in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma, only 4% of customers were restored. That has required an army of 13,500 to get to downed power lines. I saw convoys of bucket trucks rushing down the Florida Turnpike as soon as weather permitted. Think of the logistics of running that army.
Hurricanes will never be fun but when a monster storm like Irma causes less than 50 fatalities along its two-week death march, we are definitely making progress.