Saturday, July 5, 2008

On Wednesday, the Times Picayune's editorial board rightly scolded people for using the term 100-year storm. Hurricanes don't watch the calendar. A 100-year hurricane is one that has a 1 in 100 chance of striking in a given year. There is no reason that 100-year hurricanes couldn't strike two years in a row. Or even three. As the TP wisely says, "the problem isn't the person who coined the term, it's the people who continue to use it."

On Friday, Mark Schleifstein filed a report in the TP on new storm risk assessments. Schleifstein write about the risk of a "100-year storm." He uses the phrase 7 times, in fact. Three times he refers to a "50-year storm" and three times to a "500-year storm."

According to the TP's editors:
There are better ways to describe risk for hurricanes and river floods, and scientists, engineers and government officials would be doing the public a service if they talked in terms of percentage of risk. Doing so takes a little more explanation, but people will be far better informed.
Scientists, engineers and government. It's curious that they don't include the media in that list.

So is the TP uninterested in performing a public service. Or does the newspaper just not have the time to explain the odds to the public in terms of percentage of risk. For the scientists, 100-year storm is a shorthand phrase, and they no doubt understand what it really means. Isn't it the media's job to translate technical issues into terms a layman can understand?