Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Wrong Lizards

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might
get in. Got any gin?"

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, by Douglas Adams

In the little tale within a tale quoted above, a character explains why on a distant planet people keep voting in evil lizards to rule them. Sorry to spoil it a truly funny bit by revealing the punchline, but it is an apt summary for our own little morality play involving the lizards we elect to represent our interets.

Today's Times-Picayune story on the study by Risk Management Solutions estimating flood risk for insurance companies is an instructive example of how our elected officials completely fail to grasp the situation we are in, or simply don't give a damn. And I don't mean people from distant states railing against us in Washington, but people in City Hall and Baton Rouge. In a clearly adversarial situation, they retreat into timidity and abandon us to our fate.

The RMS study, which tosses out an yhistorical baseline for storm frequency and disregards the scheduled improvements to flood protection for metro New Orleans, is being widely touted by insurance companies as the basis for jacking up insurance rates. Now I'm not a statistician, but have had enough exposure to know that reducing the historical sample is probably not a very bright way to project into the future. Unless, of course, your purpose is not to try to predict the future, but to shape it to your own purposes. (c.f. Mark Twain on the uses of statistics).

Even after throwing out a century of data, the worst risk cited by the report placed the likely frequency of flooding at Filmore and Elysian Fields in Gentilly (the lowest spot considered) at once in every 55 years. The report then throws in an assumption of as much as a one foot rise in sea level from subsidence and global warming, which raises the assumption to once every 41 years.

What they disregard is that at current assumptions about how much sea level might rise. One study suggests an averge increase on the order of four inches over the next century, although you can find data suggesting that it could be more precipitous if there were massive polar ice sheet meltdowns. However, if something that drastic happens, New Orleans will just be another threatened spot on the map in a world of global catastrophe. How much precisely should my insurance go up based on the possibiity of a giant asteriod strike that ends life on earth?

Subsidence is a larger problem, with studies suggesting the city could sink by as much as three feet in the next century. This is based on a single study, contradicted by others that find as little as 10 millimeters per century. I suspect some of the wildly inflated subsidence rates are based on areas that were improperly reclaimed. While I don't have links or other evidence, I clearly recall conversations from the 1980s about the development of New Orleans east where land was not being allowed to property setttle after drainage and before backfill and development, because developers were not interested in waiting decades for the drained land to stabalize.

What RMS has done is take the worst possible case because it presents the information its clients want, and packaging it up as science supported by math. What is appears to be, according to the T-P article, is a crass misuse of science and math to profit from the desires of RMS' customer: the insurance industry. What then do those in positions of power have to say about this skewed bit of scienticsm? the T-P reports:

Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for the City of New Orleans, said the report would be one more useful piece of information to help shape the city's future.
Yeah, helpful like a lead life ring, but then what would you expect from a an Oompa-Loompa?

The Louisiana Recovery Authority heralded the report as a validation of its belief that South Louisiana needs to be rebuild stronger, safer and smarter.
L. R. A. Does anyone in Louisiana need any further explanation for their failure to support us?
These are the people who should be advocating for our recovery. By their acquiesence in this report, they demonstrate their incompetence.

Dan Hitchings, director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Hope which is re-engineering the levees, takes a slightly stronger position and points out that the reports decision to ignore the improvments to area levees is one reason "the report [does] not have much value. It talks about a situation that doesn't exist any more. They put that risk right back on to pre-Katrina condition with no known weaknesses."

[He] suggested that RMS and the corps share technical assumptions to make
sure that the insurance industry doesn't end up using one set of data and
rebuilding leaders end up using another. "I think it's important that we share
at least on a technical basis so we don't end up with broadly different
conclusions," he said.

Translated from project manager speak (in which I am moderately fluent): you're a fuckmook, but in deference to your corner office we'll disregard your drooling idiocy and have some sort of meeting at which we pretend you're not an idiot. The technical basis part of the discussion will pretty much expose you to everyone as an idiot, after which the remaining rational people can either get on with the real work, or all adjourn to call our headhunters.

This RMS report is the same sort of selective use of evidence used to debunk global warming, except used in this case it leverages global warming to expand insurance company profits. Presto, Change-O! we can through the magic of numbers change the basic business model o finsurance to one where only people with no risk get to have insurance, and the insurance industry executives laugh all the way to the bank.

The fact that no one in a position of authority has (yet) called them out on this bit of flim-flam pretty much goes to my point of earlier this week. Our leaders are like the lizards in Douglas Adams dystopic fairy tale cited at the begining. We believe we live in a democracy where our interests are represented, but keep voting for people who do not represent our interests out of fear that something worse might happen. And then we complain about the outcome.

Got any gin?

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics.

These kinds of reports can easily be manipulated to reach whatever conclusion is desired. It is virtually impossible to prove them wrong. Even if the assumptions turn out to be wrong and the worst case doesn't come to pass.
Mark, You must give serious consideration to perhaps gathering together a compendium of your musings, thoughts, experiences, ideas, suggestions, rants, etc re. NOLA/Katrina into book form for release to a wider audience. I am *very* impressed with the breadth, scope and literacy of your postings, even when I an not familiar with what informs them. My very best to you and yours for the New Year! s/al_bedo
Mark and Mominem, I've read the RMS report (twice) and the science, as painful as it is to say this, is basically right. Sure, you can manipulate the numbers and make them swing one way or another (I actually title a lecture in my Natural Hazards course "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics") but subsidence is real and sea level rise is real - we can and do measure both of them.

The question is: What do we do about it? Just raising the levees isn't enough. Basically we need to divert enough sediment out of the Mississippi River to restore and grow the marshes. Or else.
excellent analogy.

In Life, The Universe, and Everything, he wrote about the planet that thew the perpetual party...I always thought he used us as a basis for that little ditty. The planet's engineers spent all their time on making the party better and neglected the sustainability of the planet. They went so far as to move the party to a hovering platform which orbited around the planet (balcony?). The farmers below coudn't get any work done because they kept getting pelted with empty wine bottles and cheese.

God I miss Adams
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