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Perspective

Blowing our minds

Physically, hurricanes keep missing us. Psychologically, more may be landing than we realize. Physically, hurricanes keep missing us. Psychologically, more may be landing than we realize.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published December 3, 2006


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The 2006 hurricane season ended last week, but chances are you aren't feeling that great about it. It's one of those devilish human traits. Most people find it easier to turn anxiety on than off. And anyone who lives in a hurricane-prone area knows that the next season begins all too soon. You might even feel a little let down. The Tampa Bay area avoided any storm trouble, despite all the warnings to prepare.

The drumbeat started early, as it has every year in recent memory. Get ready. Buy supplies. Have a plan. In the end, like so many times before, the supplies went unneeded and the plan unrealized.

No right-minded person wants a hurricane to strike, if for no other reason than it would give property insurance companies another excuse to raise rates. But the unrealized expectations can leave people perturbed, instead of happy that they got lucky again.

"We tend to think of it as wasted effort and that the preparation was a waste of time," said Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University. "It gets worse with every year that nothing happens."

The last time the Tampa Bay area took a direct hit was in 1921. The long run of luck can breed complacency. It's the psychological consequence for constantly preparing for something that doesn't occur.

"There are things we can do to tremendously reduce the impact of how a hurricane affects our lives," said Steve Gold, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University and an expert on trauma resolution. "But complacency gets in the way."

The complacency mixes with another human characteristic: self-delusion.

The collective anxiety about hurricanes is higher in Florida than in, say, South Dakota. Still, residents who have not taken a direct hit in recent years can easily convince themselves that it won't happen to them.

"We tend to think that as long as I'm a reasonable person who follows the rules and takes some precautions, that nothing unforeseen or unpleasant can happen to me," Gold said. "That's a pleasant delusion, but it is a delusion. Bad things can happen even if you don't deserve it."

The delusion can be particularly prevalent with hurricanes since the feeling is that nothing can be done to prevent a natural disaster.

Yet, other kinds of dangerous weather don't build the same level of fear as they begin to brew. Friday's blizzard crippled a huge swath of the United States, making travel scary and leaving millions without electricity - and heat - a life-threatening situation in the cold of winter. But up north, that's just a part of seasonal life, as deadly tornadoes can be in the summer. People didn't spend days glued to their TV watching the storm develop. There is something more primal about hurricane fear.

The human species has domesticated so much of the world. Oceans were crossed. The West was won. Smallpox was conquered. But science isn't close to knowing how to stop a hurricane, even if it made sense to do so.

Once a hurricane bears down, the lack of control can increase anxiety. Until then, delusion is bliss.

"We don't think about it much, because we don't think we can control it," Figley said. "It allows most of us to get through life without becoming paralyzed by fear."

It doesn't help that the science of forecasting hurricanes remains imprecise. Preseason forecasts of the number of hurricanes were way off the last two years. In 2005, the forecasted number was much too low. This year, it was too high.

"Our long-range forecasting ability is not good and has not improved much in the past 20 years compared to advances in other types of forecasting," said Jeff Masters, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist and co-founder of wunderground.com, a weather forecasting Web site. "I don't see a lot of reason to think it's going to get a lot better anytime soon."

Even once hurricanes form, forecasters admit they have a hard time determining exactly where they will go. The "cone of uncertainty" can be hundreds of miles across just hours before landfall. And forecasting the intensity is even more problematic.

The uncertainty, combined with the relentless media barrage, results in tens of thousands of residents getting amped up as a hurricane approaches, only for most of them to experience little or none of its wrath.

It's certainly better to know a hurricane is bearing down than to be blindsided and walloped as happened in earlier times. Still, there is an unmeasured psychological toll paid every time hurricanes threaten, even if the storms miss us again and again. Knowledge may give us power, but it also can make us anxious, aware and afraid of what might happen as that "cone of uncertainty" envelops our lives season after season. What we don't know certainly can hurt us, but imperfect knowledge can chip away at our well-being in its own way.

This is not an appeal, or an excuse, to do nothing or not to prepare. Just ask the folks from New Orleans how well that worked out last year.

The Atlantic Basin remains in an up cycle that is expected to last another 20 years. The slow 2006 season was an anomaly helped by El Nino's capacity to thwart hurricanes.

El Nino might stick around long enough to influence the next hurricane season. Then again, it might not.

Either way, there's no way to tell if 2007 will be the year the Tampa Bay area's luck runs out.

Hurricane season is only six months away. So get ready. Buy supplies. Have a plan.

After that, delude yourself all you want.

Graham Brink can be reached at brink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8406.

[Last modified December 3, 2006, 12:39:03]


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