Friday, November 17, 2017

Column: Irma reminds us of our limits


On Sept. 8, 1900, a hurricane drove 15 feet of storm surge over the thriving city of Galveston, Texas, maximum elevation 8.7 feet. At least 6,000 people were killed in what remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Most of them had less than a day's warning that a storm was approaching and had no inkling of its power.

I thought of that when I read a report by the Associated Press as a storm of similar intensity rolled over the coast of Cuba and headed toward Florida. A businessman from St. Petersburg was irritated that Hurricane Irma was headed toward his town and not toward Miami as predicted. "For five days, we were told it was going to be on the East Coast, and then 24 hours before it hits, we're now told it's coming up the West Coast," the man complained. "As usual, the weatherman, I don't know why they're paid."

Arguably, they're paid for the thousands of lives they may have saved by sounding warnings that the people of Galveston never received. Thanks to radar and satellites and weather planes and forecasting supercomputers — to name only a few of the advances of the past century — the world watched for days as Irma whirled steadily westward across the Atlantic Ocean, a slow-motion bowling ball headed for the pins. The speed of its winds, the spread of its bands, the pressure in its eye were tracked like vitals in an intensive care unit.

But I don't imagine the grumpy businessman was alone in his exasperation. Our growing knowledge of the world has given us more of everything — except happiness. As 21st-century heirs to the Enlightenment, we know an awful lot. We know how to edit a gene. We know how to convert millions of simultaneous messages — conversations, texts, memes, movies — into packets of ones and zeros and speed them from tower to tower to another person's hand. We know how to convert the energy of sunlight into a ride in the car.

Yet we still don't know everything. In the case of Irma, meteorologists and their computers could read the air currents across a hemisphere and forecast the storm's eventual collision with an air mass that would push it sharply to the north. What they could not predict five days in advance, the hole in their knowledge, was the precise spot above Earth where the collision would occur.

The range of possibilities always included coordinates that would paint a target on St. Pete, but the models suggested for several days that Miami was the more likely landfall. One could choose to marvel at the overall accuracy of the forecast or grumble about its imperfection. The difference is largely a matter of temperament.

Something similar is driving our cultural split over the science of global warming. Humans know much more today than they did a century ago about the heat-trapping effects of certain gases in the atmosphere — enough to say with assurance that too great a saturation would have catastrophic effects. But no honest scientist could claim perfect knowledge of the precise impacts on our complex climate of each incremental increase in greenhouse gases. So we have arguments over the accuracy of models and mistrust over deltas of change.

In medicine, speaking generally, our knowledge is more advanced and useful in diagnosing illness than in curing it. In communications, we've raced ahead in our ability to make connections while we've lagged in the struggle to make good use of them. In politics, we've become more adept at driving factions apart while gaining little in our aptitude for bringing them together.

Ancient humans had a dismally scant knowledge of the workings of creation. The power to foretell the arrival of a storm would have been supernatural to them — much less the ability to repair a living heart or to put moving images of tiny people inside a box. But they were precocious in this regard: One creation story after another foretold the persistent fact of modern life that knowledge is imperfect and often unsettling. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, the forbidden fruit grows on the Tree of Knowledge — in this case, knowledge of good and evil. That knowledge, according to John Milton, "brought Death into the World, and all our woe."

I'm not saying, nor was Milton, that ignorance is bliss. The doomed residents of Galveston mutely attest to the value of knowing more rather than less. But across the Caribbean, throughout Florida, in sodden Houston and shaken Mexico and elsewhere in this world of death and woe, nature is reminding us of all we have yet to learn — and all that is beyond our paltry control.

© 2017 Washington Post


Editorial: Good for Tampa council member Frank Reddick to appeal for community help to solve Seminole Heights killings

As the sole black member of the Tampa City Council, Frank Reddick was moved Thursday to make a special appeal for help in solving four recent murders in the racially mixed neighborhood of Southeast Seminole Heights. "I’m pleading to my brothers. You ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florid...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

The Rays definitely like Ybor City, and Ybor City seems to like the Rays. So what could possibly come between this match made in baseball stadium heaven? Hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of millions of dollars. Rays owner Stu Sternberg told Times...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

St. Petersburg City Council members are poised to raise the minimum wage for contractors who do business with the city, a well-intended but misguided ordinance that should be reconsidered. The hourly minimum wage undoubtedly needs to rise — for every...
Published: 11/16/17

Editorial: Make workplaces welcoming, not just free of harassment

A federal trial began last week in the sex discrimination case that a former firefighter lodged against the city of Tampa. Tanja Vidovic describes a locker-room culture at Tampa Fire Rescue that created a two-tier system — one for men, another for wo...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Kriseman’s own mantra of "moving St. Pete forwar...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17
Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

The University of South Florida recently surpassed its $1 billion fundraising goal, continuing a current trend of exceeding expectations. At 61 years old — barely middle age among higher education institutions — USF has grown up quickly. It now boast...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

American military members hurt in service to their country should not have to wait a lifetime for the benefits they deserve. But that’s a reality of the disability process at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which hasn’t made payi...
Published: 11/14/17

Editorial: Deputies’ rescue reflects best in law enforcement

The bravery two Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies showed a week ago is a credit to them and reflects the professionalism of the office.Deputies Benjamin Thompson and Trent Migues responded at dusk Nov. 11 after 82-year-old Leona Evans of Webster...
Updated: 10 hours ago

Another voice: An untrustworthy deal with Russia

President Donald Trump’s latest defense of Russian leader Vladimir Putin included — along with a bow to his denials of meddling in the U.S. election — an appeal to pragmatism. "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,"...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/14/17