Bob Schwartz

Hints For Hurricane Watchers

In 2005 we became a nation of hurricane watchers. We couldn’t help it: there were so many Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms that season that the National Hurricane Center ran out of names:

Tropical Storm ARLENE
Tropical Storm BRET
Hurricane CINDY
Hurricane DENNIS
Hurricane EMILY
Tropical Storm FRANKLIN
Tropical Storm GERT
Tropical Storm HARVEY
Hurricane IRENE
Tropical Depression TEN
Tropical Storm JOSE
Hurricane KATRINA
Tropical Storm LEE
Hurricane MARIA
Hurricane NATE
Hurricane OPHELIA
Hurricane PHILIPPE
Hurricane RITA
Tropical Depression NINETEEN
Hurricane STAN
Tropical Storm TAMMY
Subtropical Depression TWENTY-TWO
Hurricane VINCE
Hurricane WILMA
Tropical Storm ALPHA
Hurricane BETA
Tropical Storm GAMMA
Tropical Storm DELTA
Hurricane EPSILON
Tropical Storm ZETA

It turned out to be a season of devastation, not the least of which was the still-resonating aftermath of Katrina. One of the upshots was political: the memorable and controversial response of President George W. Bush to Katrina (“heck of a job, Brownie”) still sticks to him as a mark on his Presidency.

Hurricanes and politics are back again, this time as Isaac heads toward a possible disruption of the Republican Convention in Tampa.

For those who experienced Hurricanes 2005 firsthand, checking the 5:00am advisory on the National Hurricane Center website became a ritual—as did checking the 11:00am, 2:00pm, 5:00pm, 8:00pm, 11:00pm and 2:00am advisories. Besides the text descriptions from “Forecaster Avila” and “Forecaster Franklin” there were the maps.

The maps provided a wealth of graphical information, including the famous “Uncertainty Cone.” This is a prediction, three and five days out, of the broad possible route of the storm, including possible timeline and strength. The cone is meant to catch the attention of all areas that might be subject to the storm’s dynamic path.

That cone is in turn based on very sophistical computer modeling of how storms behave. There are at least eight different guidance models used by forecasters, all them with a different record of successful prediction. Sometimes the models are close to each other, especially as the late life of a storm. But often the models are widely divergent. On a map, these tracks are represented by colored lines; they look like, and are sometimes called, spaghetti tracks.

Maps of uncertainty cones and advisories are still available for viewing on the NHC site, along with educational briefings and a fascinating and exhaustive history of storm seasons past. But something has gone away, as NHC explains:

The National Hurricane Center does not generate a graphic of the guidance models it uses to produce its forecasts. Such graphics have the potential to confuse users and to undermine the effectiveness of NHC official tropical cyclone forecasts and warnings.

NHC is right. If you don’t recognize that one track is more reliable than another, especially in light of current conditions, you could easily jump to an ill-informed conclusion. However, those who don’t have a degree in meteorology but who do have an unofficial certificate in hurricane tracking (those hours in front of the computer in the middle of the night have to be good for something) still love to watch those colored lines squiggle around the map.

If you are watching Isaac, visit the National Hurricane Center website. And then, if you dare to and can watch responsibly, check out the models for yourself. One of the best places to find them is here—which happens to be, by chance or fate, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, just about an hour from Janesville.

Why Compassion Matters

On August 4, in a hospital just a few miles from where this post is being written, John Wise, 66, snuck into the room where his wife Barbara, 65, was lying. They had been married for 45 years. She was suffering, reports indicate, from a triple aneurysm, and her prognosis appears to have been poor. He ended her life, shooting her in the head, though she did not die until the next day. His plan to shoot himself immediately after that was thwarted when his gun jammed. This week, he was charged with aggravated murder and faces life in prison without parole.

This has raised, not for the first or last time, the issue of mercy killing in the face of untreatable illness and declining quality of life. With an aging and ailing population, whether it is our family or ourselves, this goes each passing day from the abstract to the very real.

You can deal with this on an intellectual and practical level, weighing moral and legal issues, determining what you might do or ask others to do under a variety of circumstances. But hearing this story, the most natural thing is to cry. Not out of any failure to resolve those issues, but out of sheer compassion.

Compassion is what matters. All of our spiritual traditions commend it, but maybe none makes it more plainly central than Buddhism. The first truth of Buddhism is the reality of suffering; all else in how we are to live stems from this.

The story is told of a woman whose child had died. She came to the Buddha, who instructed her to visit neighbors and to return with a mustard seed from a house that had not been touched by death. She came back empty handed. This wasn’t to make her feel “better,” which it couldn’t. This was to help her see herself where she was, a living drop in the sea of suffering.

Compassion is more than walking in another’s shoes, more than the Golden Rule, more than “no man is an island.” It is the deepest possible recognition, beyond words, of the need that universal suffering creates. The need to care unconditonally.

If compassion is present in our lives and our politics, whatever we do cannot be completely wrong. If compassion is absent, nothing we do can be right, no matter how good it is meant to seem.