There is a certain kind of person—and I am one of them—who worries about things before they happen. For example, during the last three weeks there have been five hurricanes that came across the Atlantic and, at a certain point out in the ocean, veered off to the north to potentially head for the Hamptons.
The fact is, Long Island is one of the few stretches of land on the eastern seaboard that sits absolutely broadside to a northbound hurricane. It’s scary, if you are this kind of worrier person, to be looking a hurricane right in its bloodshot red eye on a television screen as it comes at you. None have hit us this year, but I worried with each and every one of them.
When they missed us and caused havoc elsewhere, I breathed a sigh of relief. I know that is not right. But that’s what I did.
I address what follows to myself and to others who worry like this. I think there needs to be a more scientific way to look at these approaching hurricanes. Get mathematics involved. Check the odds. I think a Las Vegas bookmaker could figure this out. And the results could be quite reassuring.
A churning Category 4 or 5 hurricane typically causes severe damage for only about 50 miles across. Yes, there is wind and rain beyond the 50 miles on both sides. But I think approaching this mathematically, 50 miles will do. It’s 50 miles across, east to west, as it heads north.
The U.S. coastline along the eastern seaboard is 1,470 miles from Key West to Maine as the crow flies, but as a wiggly coastline it is about 28,670 miles. One could say that a 50-mile-wide hurricane would be a very unlikely thing when compared to 28,670 miles of possibilities, but that would be wrong. Some parts of these 28,670 miles run south to north and so are very unlikely to be struck. The Jersey Shore does that, for example. A hurricane would have to screech to a halt and suddenly turn 90 degrees west to hit Jersey. It could happen, but it’s not likely.
How would an odds maker figure this? He’d draw vertical lines—longitudes, if you will—extending south to north every 50 miles from the tip of Florida in the west to out in the ocean 500 miles east of Maine and look at the number of miles of coastline that would be needed to take that 50-mile journey. As it happens, the east coast does jut out as you go north, but sometimes it might take 300 miles to do the 50 miles. Florida’s east coast, for example, goes nearly true north as you go. It doesn’t complete the 50 miles to the east until you get to Georgia. Then you get many 50-mile stretches quickly from Georgia to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Here the odds are shorter. Then they lengthen again for Delaware and New Jersey.
The shorter odds would occur not only for North Carolina and the Hamptons, but also for the southern coast of Rhode Island, and also Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. You’d also have to give short odds to these 50-mile stretches that are out into the Atlantic in open water. Hurricanes miss land entirely sometimes.
If I were to guess what a Las Vegas odds maker would find, I think he’d find the short odds hitting Long Island are still about 50 to 1. Those are still pretty long odds. One in 50 hurricanes. And this is quite reassuring, if you ask me.
As for the even longer odds in northern Florida, Delaware and the Jersey Shore, the odds are really remote, probably no greater than the odds you’d be hit by lightning on a golf course. Or be eaten by an alligator on a golf course.
That is, unless you were playing golf on a course in Florida. In Florida, there are warning signs that tell you, if the ball goes into a pond, just leave it. Not worth your life. And don’t wave your metal golf clubs around in a thunderstorm.
Now that’s something to worry about.