Hurricane Ian, probability, and the Greek Fates

“God made Florida a swamp, and God wants it back.” (unknown)

I cast my lot with the Greek Fates on some good odds regarding Hurricane Ian and we survived pretty much unscathed. Next time, though, I will probably leave if I have the ability to do so, even with the same odds.

Betting on the cone

The first hurricane probability bet is where you are in “the cone” published by the National Weather Service. This projection is widely misunderstood, as many people see an enlarging storm rather than a probability distribution, estimated by multiple “Bayesian” (self-correcting) computer models based on detailed weather data from hundreds of past storms. It is essentially, in cross section, a normal “bell” curve predicting the center of the storm’s future location, the standard deviation of the prediction getting wider and wider as the number of days stretch out ahead.

Hurricane Ian early path

An early projection of Hurricane Ian’s path.

The projections several days ahead predicted the storm could hit Florida’s west coast anywhere from as far south as Punta Gorda, just north of Fort Myers, to as far north and west as Panama City, where Hurricane Michael did so much damage in 2018. But the probabilistic “mode” of the predictions, akin rolling a seven in craps, was to hit just north of Tampa Bay, halfway up Florida’s west coast.

I live 50-60 miles south of this early-projected landfall, between Bradenton and Sarasota, and so I took the storm under serious consideration. But, still recovering not so well from recent surgery, I did not feel inclined to pack up and leave.

The people of Punta Gorda, and especially those just to the south of that early cone in Fort Myers, were likely relieved at this forecast. However, like the edge-case of Nate Silver’s 2016 Presidential election prediction that so many people blew off, the odds of Hurricane Ian turning toward the south edge of the cone were at least as good as rolling a twelve on a two-dice roll. And then overnight into Tuesday morning, twelve came up when the cone narrowed and shifted to the south end of the earlier cone, now putting me on the backside of the predicted landfall, some 40 miles south of my home.

Hurrican Ian path 2

Projected path on Monday evening.

Unfortunately, this put Fort Myers on the south side of the landfall, which, because of the counter-clockwise spin of the winds, would receive the brunt of the leading-edge storm surge. In short, Punta Gorda got the wind, but Fort Myers got the water, and in spades.

Life on the backside

The second hurricane bet is your personal location and house structure. I had watched my new modest half-duplex, or “villa” in Florida terms, being built last year. By current building codes, its cement block construction is heavily reinforced with rebar and the roof is well secured. The windows are all relatively small and rated to 150 miles per hour, as is the “lanai” patio door. The house has all the minimalist exterior style of a bomb shelter and theoretically the performance as well. I felt ready for the storm, as my favorite Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean sang.

Like most newer communities in the better-regulated areas, my neighborhood streets drain well into two large ponds, which in turn overflow into a multi-acre wetland. As we are a few miles back from the coast, then, both the storm surge and the rain run-off threats were minimal, although not zero. All of these factors made that bet look better.

The odd experience with the backside of a hurricane is to feel the winds strengthening from the north and east as the storm center just misses you to the south. The rain and wind pounded heavily for hours with gusts over 60 miles per hour from Wednesday afternoon through early Thursday morning. As the morning cleared, all of our trees, still staked from their plantings last summer, were intact. Part of the community fence was pushed down in the wind. And some water appeared on the carpet inside our north wall from some yet-to-be-determined source. If I can’t figure it out, I will hope that it is an “only in north-wind hurricane storms” thing.

Other than a few momentary drops of power and internet service, our underground utilities kept us connected and powered the whole time. Other friends in the Sarasota/Bradenton area lost power for several days, and an older area a mile away is still without power despite some significant strengthening of the above-ground power grid through the summer.

The uncomfortable theodicy

We were “graced” or “lucky” or “prepared.” Take your pick. It is kind of like “praising God” for surviving a cancer or Covid scare while knowing that others did not receive that “grace.” Survivor’s guilt, perhaps.

Sanibel Island, just off Fort Myers, a lovely beach resort area, will never be the same, and it will be inaccessible for some undetermined time after the collapse of the causeway connecting it to the mainland. Homes, possessions, and livelihoods have been washed away over a long stretch of coast by the wind and storm surge. It is tragedy, pure and simple.

Perhaps because the people on the south end of that earlier cone let their guard down, they had less than 24 hours to evacuate this storm when the path of the bullet was re-aimed at them. People in Pinellas County on the coast near Tampa, many of whom did evacuate, may have learned a false lesson. When a forecast misses you, people often distrust future forecasts.

What will happen the next time a hurricane appears to be aimed at Tampa Bay? Is this, in probability terms, a Poisson distribution, like waiting for the next call on a rarely used software hotline? The next “call” might come next week, or maybe years into the future. Or is Tampa waiting for Godot?

I moved from the Midwest, with its temperature extremes and tornadoes, to Florida several years ago. As the traffic mounts from newer arrivals, I often re-think that decision. Political craziness in Florida adds to my concerns, as Sarasota is becoming a warmer version of northern Idaho with people like disgraced General Michael Flynn moving in. Not to mention being the home of the Cyber Ninjas of Arizona vote recount fame and the ghost headquarters of Trump’s Truth Social.

I have written several times that the Morai, the Greek Fates, seem to model well the randomness of real life, if you fashion that randomness into probabilistic random variables. The first Fate, in the most popular legend, spins the “thread” that determines much of your life, akin to the stochastic genetic shuffle that gives us our unique deck of DNA. The second fate weaves the “cloth” of your life from that thread, similar to the epigenetic post-birth changes our DNA brings and the probabilistic pattern of events like childhood diseases that change us along the way.

The three Fates

The Morai (the Greek Fates) Clotho, Laecheus, and Atropos

Finally, the third Fate, Atropos, randomly cuts the thread of your life. She has been very busy in Florida this week. If you evacuated, however, you may have “beat the odds” and delayed her scissors for another day. I have personally seen the shadow of Atropos looming around too much lately.

Related Posts:

For additional posts on theodicy, probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.

Prior Dice More in the queue…

1 thought on “Hurricane Ian, probability, and the Greek Fates

  1. Lisa

    Glad to hear you were relatively unscathed by Ian. Hope you feel better soon. Was wondering if your governor had the nerve to try to politicize the aftermath in some way; at least initially he has accepted federal assistance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.