You can’t judge Hurricane Irene by the damage

Was Hurricane Irene overhyped? I’m tempted to ask, “who cares?” But I’m much more tempted to make a pedantic point about probabilistic thinking, so I’ll do that instead.

A lot of the commentary over whether the storm got too much attention has been based around the damage the storm did or did not do. NBC’s Al Roker, for instance, tweeted, “Since when is covering a storm that kills 16 people and counting, causes massive flooding and millions in damage hype?” Over at the New York Times, Nate Silver runs some numbers and concludes that Irenes ranks as “the 8th-most destructive storm since 1980, adjusted for inflation and the growth in wealth and population.”

But the Irene hype occurred mostly before it made landfall, and so mostly before we knew how bad it really was, or wasn’t. Storms are unpredictable, both in their path and intensity, and though Irene mostly broke our way, it could easily have swung towards New York City and picked up speed before smacking into the city. If that had happened, we would be having a very different conversation right now. So the question isn’t whether the storm was overhyped given how things actually went, but whether it was overhyped given how they could have gone. I’m not enough of a meteorologist to render a verdict on that, but it’s the right question to be asking.

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