Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts on The Tornado

It is hard to describe the feeling you get watching the news from work downtown helplessly miles away from your home and family as a storm bears down. Not that your presence could do much, but the distance adds to the agony. You watch as a system that had largely passed the area suddenly develops on the back end. Then a storm chaser identifies a funnel emerging from the cloud. It quickly takes structure. And builds from there. A moment later it has made contact with the ground. In complete opposition to both likelihood and desire, it strengthens and strengthens and strengthens. Its direction is along a probable path but with random veering. All that is certain is that it will move northeasterly. As the overly excited and less than informative storm chasers on the scene and meteorologist in the station alternate between calm but incomplete narration and screaming panic, you do math in your head. What are the chances it moves more north than east? Too much north too quickly and your home and family are more and more likely to be in the certain path. What are the chances it dissipates? What are the chances it reaches your neighborhood but only glances your home? What are the chances your family can survive a direct hit? How powerful is this monster?

Here is what it looked like as neighbors watched it pass.

It was less than 2 miles south. It moved east more than north. My family was spared. Others were not so lucky of course. Their agony was realized in a crashing horrific wave. My heart is heavy for them.

The best I can do to describe the horrible, random terror is to say it is like a plane crash. Or perhaps like knowing that a few planes today will crash. You're in a plane; your family is in another; there are hundreds that will survive, but some will not...

Some other thoughts:

  • The fear of price gouging raised its ugly head not long into the tragedy. Although this tragedy was more isolated within a larger, unharmed community, the importance of letting the price system allocate goods and services was still as always very relevant. Hotel space, dump trucks, and pod storage units are just a few examples that come to mind. Immediately after the storm as sirens echoed as they would for hours, my neighbor told me that he was going to rush to the store to get ice as soon as his wife made it home. I had been home only about 30 minutes after the storm. Our power was out and would be out indefinitely. Once his wife got home he indeed went to the store returning with a very large camping cooler full of ice. This made me think of Munger's great example using ice (bottom of page 4) showing why anti-price gouging laws are very bad. In researching the link for that ice example I immediately found that Munger was already on the case. Because of the limited nature of this tragedy, the ice example may not apply here as well as in other cases. Yet it may still considering how bad traffic is in the area and how limited supplies may be over a short, critical period. I also don't know exactly why my neighbor with two young children felt the need to get the ice--might be for insulin, might be for beer.
  • These types of events challenge the lifestyle I live. I contend with two strong forces in my psyche: between being a minimalist and being a librarian/museum curator. I both long for an existence of commoditized possessions--easily replaceable, without sentimentality but at the expense of authenticity and personality--as well as an existence surrounded by things that tell a unique story. 
  • The conventional wisdom on storm shelters is based on weak cost-benefit analysis. The probability of need is very low, much lower than commonly felt, and the cost is high and non trivial, both the explicit cost of purchase and implicit costs of inconvenience and risk
  • That said . . . here is an idea of my own that borders on spending other people's money--gotta love that. Schools seem to be a way people (children mostly) are particularly vulnerable. Kids are a dependent group. Hospitals fall into this category as well somewhat. Retrofitting existing structures is most likely cost prohibited. But why not design new structures with intentionally collapsible hallways? This might work either in a basement structure or on a first level. The idea is basically a cylindrical-shaped long hall where the end walls are designed to fall into it to seal it off. Perhaps actual doors could be used or a staggered design to segregated the cylindrical hallway. 
  • The signs of generosity are amazing as is how freely and naively people will give money in support of the cause with little or no accountability.
I wish peace to those who have lost so much in this. And let perpetual light shine upon those who never emerged to see the Sun after the wind had passed.