Hurricane moral panic (you can be too safe)

OMG what a frustrating day.  I should have been at NCSU teaching class like normal.  My kids should have been in school.  Today’s weather was cloudy, high around 80, and occasional winds 10-20mph.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Yes, there is a huge hurricane moving this way, but it is doing so slowly and in a reasonable predictable path.  To make a decision on Wednesday afternoon that it was going to be too dangerous for school today (and on Tuesday that NC State needed to close on Wednesday at noon) is an excess of caution.  Yes, you can be too safe.  If safety was all we really cared about, we’d never leave our homes and certainly not get in cars.  Life is all about managing acceptable risk and for Wake County Public Schools to decide it was too risky today was the wrong call and an excess of caution.  Had they simply followed the evolving weather forecasts (again, slow-moving storm), they could have realized yesterday that barring a nearly unprecedented shift in hurricane forecast, that the Raleigh area would be okay today.  It’s not at all uncommon for us to have winter weather really close to crippling freezing rain versus totally harmless 33-34 degree rain an they’ll wait to make the call at 4am if they have to.  But “hurricane!” and we have to decide now!

So, all the local schools and universities gave into the moral panic.  When they initially decided that school would be out after half a day on Thursday, I’m sure there were tons of panicked messages from parents about putting their kids at extreme risk.  Of course, even then, that extreme risk was 30-40 mph winds.  Not great, but sure not high risk.  NCSU canceled for Wednesday at noon (which was basically canceling all day based on morning class attendance I heard) and we’ve had two days of better-than-average September weather.  If they held off and then things really did get worse, there would still have been plenty of time to cancel and take action.  I’ll italicize again– it’s a slow-moving storm with quite accurate predictions for 24-48 hours ahead.  I had a nice enough day at home.  Played with the kids; figured out how to string a guitar, worked on an external tenure letter, but the non-faculty employees literally were not allowed on campus today and forced to use their leave that they were surely saving up for real vacations.

I know, I know.  It could have been much worse.  Predictions earlier this week had hurricane force winds coming to the Raleigh area.  But, we know that these longer-range predictions have incredibly high uncertainty and we know that when forecasts change, there is time.  Slow-moving.  Even the worst predictions were never suggesting central NC would be in a evacuation type situation.

Why did NCSU cancel prematurely?  I’m sure because UNC did.  Why did my son’s Wake Tech classes prematurely?  I’m sure because NCSU.  It’s just social contagion.  People hear “hurricane” “epic storm” etc., and seem to lose all ability to make reasoned, rational costs/benefit calculations.  Again, I’m not exactly talking about the coast here (sure, those people around Wilmington are more than entitled to freak out).  Nobody wants to be the one university or public school system “putting the kids in danger!” while the other systems exercise their “abundance (excess) of caution.”

Of course, as annoyed as I am in Wake County, the counties north of us truly have no excuse.  Even they canceled today.  Presumably, they thought, “well, we’re next to Wake and Wake canceled…” even though it was marginal at best that Wake should have.   Check out Vance and Granville here (north central NC)

Image result for nc county map

Meanwhile, check out these maps for wind and rainfall potentials:

[Image of WPC QPF U.S. rainfall potential]

[Image of probabilities of 34-kt winds]

Not exactly the stuff of which school cancellations should be made.  Honestly, if you just told people, “Weather tomorrow will be really crappy.  30-40mph winds and 2-3 inches of rain” nobody would say “OMG cancel schools!”  Alas, tell people, “Due to Hurricane Florence, weather tomorrow will be really crappy.  30-40mph winds and 2-3 inches of rain” and everybody thinks this is the most reasonable thing in the world.

When ranting about this to my kids today it struck me that it’s almost like how people lose all rational calculation with cancer.  Many cancers favor watchful waiting and less-invasive treatment, but so many people hear cancer and all they can think is “get it out!”  It seems that with hurricanes causing the weather– even if local conditions are far from hurricane like– people just can’t deal rationally.

Oh, and I know, chance that it could get worse all that.  But again, slow moving, and thus plenty of warning.

And, lastly, I wasted far too much time today arguing with Amazon over the package of mine they have seemingly lost.  I ordered it Monday for Wednesday delivery and they have the nerve to tell me the hurricane is why it’s not here.  It’s been in Durham– great weather and 20 miles away since Tuesday!  Every email/chat they’re all like “well.. hurricane” and I’m like “ummm, I live here and no.  If the Durham warehouse is telling you (back in India?) ‘hurricane!’ they are lying.”  My most recent email from them said they were evacuating employees.  Durham is not even under a Tropical Storm Watch (i.e., much less a Warning).

For the record, my Amazon package was an external battery charger so my son Alex can still watch Peppa Pig and Phineas and Ferb on his Ipad through multiple charges should we lose our power.  Now, if we do lose it and Alex ends up upset, I’ll be really mad.

Okay.  Feels damn good to get all that off my chest!

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

9 Responses to Hurricane moral panic (you can be too safe)

  1. Nicole K. says:

    Yeah, I had 2/3 of my classes canceled for the week. One of them involved a field trip to watch the Cary Town Council conduct a meeting. Instead, I get to watch a recorded one. That, to me is a divine gift. Because if you have every been to a meeting of local government, which I did several times a cub and boy scout, you would know they are the most boring thing that a person can be forced to endure. The recorded meeting is still going to be awfully boring, but at least I can speed a recorded video up to 1.7-1.8 speed.

    I handle having all evening classes pretty well unless the professor goes longer than about an hour and a half without giving us a break (my extended release stimulant runs out about 7-730, so I need to get up and walk around for a few minutes to mitigate that) but I’m pretty sure there’s no way I would have made it through the entire in-person meeting without falling asleep at least once.

  2. Nicole K. says:

    Also, if something from Amazon is supposed to be coming from their Durham facility, you can expect the chances of actually getting it on time are low. They’ve just started their “Amazon Logistics” delivery operation at that facility. Basically, that’s them hiring people on a freelance basis to make the deliveries and they pay those delivery contractors significantly less than any other delivery service (like the USPS or UPS) pays it’s delivery drivers. Plus the people that do it use their own personal vehicles.

    In Woodbridge, they’d been doing it for long enough there, that they had a stable enough and experienced enough crew of delivery contractors that it was only somewhat less reliable than a real delivery service. I put up with that because I could get free same-day delivery for about 50% of the stuff I ordered from them.

    Sadly, that is not the case here. I’ve had two shipments from the Durham warehouse get marked as delivered and handed directly to a resident, when what I’m pretty sure really happened is that the contractor driver decided that this job sucks and I don’t want to do it anymore. So they marked everything as delivered and went home.

    Amazon basically says that without saying that when you contact them about the missing delivery too. They say something to the effect of “sometimes items are mismarked as delivered when they actually weren’t.” They have you wait a day to see if the driver actually returned their deliveries. If the item status doesn’t change, then they will offer you a refund. Luckily the last time this happened, they didn’t have anymore in Durham. So I reordered it, they covered the upgraded delivery charge, and it was delivered by UPS the next day from their Richmond warehouse.

    So far I am 1 for 3 in actually getting an Amazon Logistics delivery from Durham. I’m 0 for 3 in getting them on time. I’m crossing my fingers that whatever I order is not in Durham until they get better trained and consistent contractors.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I’m also so offended that they just keep blaming the weather for a package that should have been here Wednesday. A blatant lie.

      • Nicole K. says:

        Well that is also becoming a problem with their chat support people I have also recently had happen to me. The support person I talked to the day after the missed delivery occurred actually told me that there was an error the previous day and I would get it delivered that day. I asked them why they didn’t update the order status to reflect the new information because it was still showing up as delivered. She said that she could see in her system that it was already out for delivery. Amazon had always been great with customer service before so I accepted what she said.

        About 4 hours later I decided to follow up with them again to see if they could give me an update and found out that the earlier support chat was basically the agent straight up lying to me and that as far as they were concerned their system said that it had been delivered the day before. I had the agent pull the previous chat and read it. She could not explain why the other person decided to lie to me. I got $50 gift card to shut me up, but between that and the awful Amazon Logistics reliability issues, I have started to rethink using Amazon as my default whenever I need to buy something.

      • Steve Greene says:

        Well, I emailed “Jeff Bezos” about this and got a response that they will investigate further, so I’m pretty curious to see what they have to say.

      • Nicole K. says:

        It’s a year out of date, but this should give you an idea of why they like freelancers making deliveries and just how horrible of a job it is. Why anyone would want to wear out their car making deliveries for peanuts is beyond me.

        I work in the gig economy doing freelance captioning. I learned my lesson after working for my first online transcription company that all freelance work is not the same. The company I work for now pays fairly and only hires Americans to work for it. The other company I worked for paid slave wages and most of the lower level work was done by people in countries like Kenya and the Philippines. Since they take everyone who has a pulse, it was a good way to learn how to do transcription.

        When I finally got tired of them treating me like crap, I was good enough at doing the work to get hired by the company that I work for now. They have high standards and a pretty lengthy unpaid preemployment screening and testing process, but they treat us like people and pay us fairly for the work that we do. It typically works out to between $15-25 an hour depending on the type of work currently available and how fast I can finish the jobs that I take.

        I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job I have now had I not learned the basics of audio transcription from the company that exploited and underpaid me for the 5 or so months that I worked for them. But it really made it clear to me that it’s really important when thinking about working as a freelancer to really investigate the pros and cons of the job you’re thinking about.

        I also had an opportunity to do homework, written assignments, and other graded work for college students who wanted to pay me to help them cheat, but I quit that job without actually taking any work as soon as I realized exactly what that company meant by “freelance technical writing, proofreading, and editing.” I could have made good money, but I worked hard for my undergraduate degree, and I’m working hard to get my master’s degree, and I just wasn’t OK with helping people buy their college degree instead of earning it.

        So, yeah “gig economy” is really a mixed bag.

      • dsdaughtry says:

        I contacted Amazon customer service today about an Amazon Prime order placed last week. I was told that deliveries are shipped, but they have no control over FedEx, UPS, or the USPS services. I can somewhat agree with that assessment. However, the roads here in Wake County are clear, operational, and don’t pose a delivery threat.

        It somewhat begs the question about the truth in missions or mottos. The post office has always embraced its motto as ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” However, in light of inclement weather conditions that motto or mission statement should come with an asterisk.

        ps: NCSU classes are canceled for 9/17/2018. (sigh)

  3. Mika says:

    Good rant (and informative too)!

  4. dsdaughtry says:

    I never knew that one hurricane could garner so much press coverage? Since when did all the major news networks become a 24×7 Hurricane desk? Sure, this is a severe storm. However, WRAL and other affiliates must have purchased company shares in Eli Lilly because it may influence the Prozac market because of all the additional coverage.

    To make matters worse, there has been so much excessive coverage of business closing that it has created a firestorm of additional closures in regularly operated businesses such as fast food, hospitals, and gas stations. However, nothing has transpired as to multiple power outages whatsoever. In fact, there hasn’t been any power disruption for Wake County for the exception of a few transformers that blew in Garner but were back online within the hour.

    I am not suggesting that the storm and wind gusts are dismissive. However, I personally think the wind gusts in Wake County were minimal and didn’t pose a threat to the community. I would be willing to bet that the wind-machine used during a Beyonce concert had more wind power effects than the wind gusts in Wake County.

    As for preempting regularly televised programs I cannot insue the level of disgust and disappointment. Most people do not require handholding while a reporter from the Weather Channel walks beside the hurricane as if to visit every neighbor it passes. Sometimes families and individuals need a much-needed break from the media hype. For beginners, I didn’t have to listen to President Trump utter anything ridiculous. Additionally, I learned to play Word With Friends once again to improve my vocabulary. What really irks me is that I will have to spend 20 minutes clearing out my DVR of all the recorded programs with hurricane media coverage overlaps.

    Lastly, this storm seems like a meal-ticket for not just the media but for politicians in general. Yes, there was and still is lots of rain. However, this storm was mitigated pretty well despite the fact that it turned abruptly towards South Carolina. However, North Carolina politicians will begin assessing damages as if the storm leveled North Carolina – which is hardly the case. And we wonder why we have a huge national deficit? Anyhow, that’s another discussion on another day.

    Perhaps we live in a world filled with too much social media combined with hysteria leveled hype? Society insists on dissecting every moment as if it is relevant towards a closer moment of disaster? This storm has similarities of the Big Bad Wolf story. At some point, in future, there will be a moment where an emergency occurs, and society will have become numb and despondent where they disconnect from the situation because it has been hyped over and over. Media is somewhat responsible for this issue because when we see or hear, “this is a Special Report” or “we interrupt this program” our energy level begins to shift to finding the next channel to avoid understanding what the message actually is?

    Our phones ping all through the night alerting us of Amber Alerts hundreds of miles away or Ice storms are impacting the mountains when we live towards the coast. Society cannot seem to differentiate between a disaster or a rainstorm. For that reason, society has become a bit sad and melancholy.

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