Black Swans and Perfect Storms
So the town of East Hampton has declared a state of emergency. School is cancelled tomorrow, emergency personnel will be knocking on doors in low-lying areas. MON TIKI is deep in a well-sheltered corner of Lake Montauk. The US Coast Guard has moved their rescue boats usually stationed in Shinnecock and Fire Island inlets to the Montauk station to ride out the storm.
That speaks to the storm surge forecast further west and especially for the New York City area. The peak tide at the Battery at lower Manhattan is expected to be 5-6 feet over and above the already high astronomical tide that accompanies the full moon. On the plus side, this is something that can be anticipated and responded to; there’s no reason for anyone to drown. Still, it’s probably going to be a big big mess in all the low-lying areas in and around New York Harbor and the barrier islands of New Jersey and Long Island.
Thanks to a book by Sebastian Junger the Halloween Gale of 1991 became known as “the Perfect Storm” and since then that phrase has entered the popular lexicon as short-hand for any unlikely combination of events resulting in catastrophe.
The implication is that these catastrophes were and are combinations of once-in-a-lifetime alignments of circumstances.
As hurricanes go, so far the death toll from Sandy has been modest. The 1938 New England Hurricane killed about 800; in 1998 Hurricane Mitch left over 20,000 missing or dead; so far Sandy’s killed fewer than 100. Let’s hope the death toll does not rise.
Let us also hope the phrase “a perfect storm of…” will be banished from our lexicon. It’s a catchy, colorful title for a book, but it doesn’t actually mean anything at all.