Kathryn Miles

The official blog for the author of SUPERSTORM: NINE DAYS INSIDE HURRICANE SANDY.

I just returned from Oklahoma, which is set to experience 1400 earthquakes this year — the majority of which are believed to be caused by wastewater injection sites used as part of fracking.  It’s a scary concept — especially for the people who live in this beset state.  You can read some of my preliminary findings in my latest Pscychology Today column:



It’s become almost commonplace to hear elected officials dodge environmental issues with a jaunty apology: I’m not a scientist.  Mitch McConnell used the excuse late last year when a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer asked him about if he agrees with climatologists who point out that our carbon emissions are responsible for global warming. House Speaker John Boehner has made a habit of avoiding the subject by pointing out his lack of scientific credentials; so too have Governors Bobby Jindal and Rick Scott.

Last night, President Barack Obama called out this practice during his State of the Union Address. “I’m not a scientist, either,” he told Congress. “But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.” These scientists, he continued, have been telling us that the climate is changing. And with that change is coming an entirely new environmental paradigm that will affect every aspect of our lives.

One of the most profound effects we are witnessing is the change in our weather. Climate change doesn’t just affect long-term considerations like annual temperatures and sea level rise; it also impacts our day-to-day conditions as well.  Meteorologists tell us that with climate change also comes bigger hurricanes capable of travelling further north and bringing with them heightened surge. It means typhoons in places like Hawaii and well beyond the season normally reserved for those types of storms. It results in deadly snowfalls like the one that paralyzed Buffalo late last year and the kind of flooding that plagued the Northwest that same month.

We need a national weather program than can keep up with these kinds of changes and work to keep us all safe. Much has been written about our current meteorological crisis, which is marked by outmoded technology, NOAA employee shortages, and a satellite gap that may last 17 months or more. Climate change only makes this crisis more severe. Weather models, like the one that predicted Superstorm Sandy would slam into New York, use past precedent in their predictions. A changing climate makes those past events increasingly irrelevant. We need to invest in new model technology that accommodates these changes. We also need a secure weather network that deters would-be hackers and terrorists.

Last night, President Obama called for a 21st century infrastructure – one that includes “modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet.” He didn’t mention a new weather infrastructure, but he should have.   Natural disasters like floods and hurricanes don’t just cause millions of dollars in damage; they are responsible for increased medical events like cardiac arrest, and they cause immense psychological damage to those who experience them – sometimes resulting in PTSD that can last for decades.

Good weather is about personal safety and a sense of well being. It’s about national security.   And, really, what better investment is there than that?



National Weather Service Forecast Office

Mt. Holly, New Jersey


Barometer: 30.13 inches (rising) Winds: Calm

Skies: Overcast

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Meteorologist Gary Szatkowski was reconsidering. He hadn’t slept well that night, and when he walked into the forecasting room that morning, he could tell his staff hadn’t, either. Even from his office, he could hear the ceaseless ringing of the phones at the public affairs desk. Calls to the office were increasing, and they weren’t just from concerned residents anymore. Some of the state’s emergency management teams had begun to phone as well, wondering if they needed to start initiating storm plans. “Something was definitely cooking,” says Szatkowski. “Things were beginning to spin up.”

And with that spin-up would come an inevitable pile of growing…

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New Jersey Amusement Park

I’m really pleased to be a new columnist for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.  My doctoral work was focused on cognitive development, so in a way I feel like I’m coming home.  My first column, published yesterday, delves into theories of risk: why we take the chances we do, and what’s at stake each time we make a choice.

It was these questions that led me to write SUPERSTORM.  I had just finished covering the sinking of the Bounty for Outside Magazine, and I was haunted by the questions that remained: what made the crew of the Bounty decide to sail into the storm? Why were they vilified while the Coast Guard and Hurricane Hunters were praised as heroes?  Who decided to evacuate and who decided to stay?  Why did some people survive while others lost their lives?

I quickly learned that there are no easy answers.  But that doesn’t make the need for them any less important.  We live in a changing climate.  Hurricanes are going to get bigger and less predictable.  The appearance of anomalous tornados will only increase.  Rising sea levels make catastrophic floods all the more likely.  If we don’t have both a collective and an individual commitment to risk assessment, we are going to pay a price far greater than any of us can bear.  If there is a lesson to be learned from Sandy, it is surely that.

You can find a copy of the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY column here.  I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think.


On the evening of September 3, 1821, the seemingly impossible became real: a Category 2 hurricane collided head-on with New York City. Already the country’s most populated city, New York had also just become the first to surpass a population of 100,000. The results of the Great September Gale were devastating: it filled cellars and collapsed wharves, decimated buildings and sank ships, all of which brought the metropolis to its knees. The storm also damaged our collective psyche: for the first time in recorded history, New Yorkers were forced to confront not only the fact that they were at risk for a direct hurricane strike, but also that they were woefully unprepared for the resulting disaster.



Over the next 191 years, our country lost sight of that dangerous truth. We continued to build on floodplanes and in surge zones; indeed, we located the very commercial heart of our nation in that contested space. Two years ago, Sandy reminded us just how deadly a decision that was.

But here’s the most terrifying thing of all: that storm could have been a lot worse.

Earlier this week, Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurer, issued a report entitled The Big One: The East Coast’s USD 100 Billion Event. The 21 page study uses many of the same weather models employed by NOAA and other meteorological offices to predict storm intensity, track, and resulting surge: all part of an attempt to anticipate just how badly the United States would be devastated in an event like the 1821 hurricane. Their results were grim: should another Great September Gale strike, we could very well experience damages exceeding $107 billion—making any such storm the costliest to hit the eastern seaboard.

This report didn’t calculate the loss of human life or fragile shoreline, which would undoubtedly be greater than any of us are prepared to bear. As a resinsurer, Swiss Re is responsible for protecting the insurance companies that issue our homeowner and business policies, helping them to manage financial risk that would be too great otherwise. And the implications of their report are clear: an event like the 1821 hurricane would cripple not only the communities hit by the storm, but also the fragile network of insurers we rely on for our collective financial well being. Recovering from that kind of devastation may prove even more difficult than rebounding from any environmental ruin brought by the storm as well.

The question we all need to ask is how can we prepare for that kind of ruin?