Earthquake Zone vs. Hurricane Zone – The Anxiety of Certainty

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

-Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing, "The Collected Poetry of Don Rumsfeld"

Say you’re trying to decide between living in California or Florida. Both are natural disaster hotspots. In California, scientists confidently predict that a big quake will hit sometime over the next 30 years, maybe today, maybe in 30 years. No one knows exactly when. In Florida, hurricanes reliably strike every year and cause billions and billions of dollars of damage.

When you live in California, you might spend a little time every few years checking your emergency supplies. However, no one in California regularly worries about earthquakes. You don’t walk around each day wondering if today is the day.

In Florida, there are designated "Hurricane Seasons". Residents know that during certain months of the year hurricanes will come. Meteorologists can forecast the timing of hurricanes and residents can prepare. TV stations interview residents beforehand and ask, "How do you feel about the upcoming hurricane?"

In Florida they trade certainty and the ability to prepare for the psychological anxiety that yearly hurricane seasons bring. In California they trade uncertainty and the inability to prepare for the psychological tranquility that comes with such unknowing.

Natural disasters may be equally devastating in both states from a destruction or financial perspective (the Big Quake will make up for several years of hurricanes), but from a psychological / stress perspective, I would argue they ravage Florida — or places where there’s certainty around a frequent, smaller event versus uncertainty around an infrequent, larger event — more.

All else being equal, would you rather live in a earthquake zone or hurricane zone? Is it possible to extrapolate this thesis into a larger point about how we deal with known unknowns versus known knowns?

21 Responses to Earthquake Zone vs. Hurricane Zone – The Anxiety of Certainty

  1. Dave M. says:

    Having lived in Florida for over 20 years, I have to say that hurricane strikes are not as frequent as they may seem. And when they do strike the damage is usually fairly limited in scope…

    Having never visited California, I cannot directly compare the risk of earthquakes to hurricanes, but I will say that I am very happy with Florida.

    Hurricanes will come and can be severe, but the devastation is limited and there is nearly always a warning. Most people die from storm surge; which can be avoided by evacuation.

    Earthquakes, I believe, come without much notice. However, you can be trapped on a freeway, in an office, etc. But, at least you can go outside… Just watch out for the mudslides.

    It’s an interesting though to consider.

  2. Kurt says:

    Ben,

    If you haven’t read up on it already you might be interested in Prospect Theory. It documents/explains some of the irrational decisions that people make about risk aversion and uncertainty (and resulted in a Nobel Prize). The excellent book “Against The Gods” explains it; an online summary is here: link to econport.org

  3. Douglas says:

    I’ve lived in Florida for about 5 years now. Before Florida, I lived in New Jersey, which besides cold weather and an occasional blizzard, has virtually no natural disasters.

    Hurricanes are bad, but as mentioned above, they aren’t all that frequent. They hit different places so while Florida may get 20 hurricanes in a given year, for example, a single person will probably only experience 1 or 2. And of those 2, one will just be a hyped rain storm.

    The media stations here as well as the national news really hype the hurricanes. What may just be a bad rain storm that meets the characteristics of a tropical storm will be hyped like it is going to cause the world to end. It scares people and unfortunately, causes them to discard serious threats to their health and safety.

    As for earthquakes, I have never lived in an area prone to earthquakes. Would I prefer to have more frequent, but more expectable natural disasters? Yes.

    Hurricanes aren’t fun at all, but a vast majority of the time, if you are prepared and stay smart, they won’t cause your health or well being to be jeopardized.

    The major earthquake scientists are expecting, though, I have no idea. The Bay Area is overdue and I have a feeling it is going to be a little thing when it happens.

    We should all move to places with very few to no natural disasters. Save us a lot of stress.

  4. Fuuny thing about that Rumsfeld quote – I’m positive he got it from somewhere else. Back in 1997 or 98 a business coach I was considering hiring said essentialy the same thing to me. He phrased it as “the things you don’t know you don’t know,” but the meaning is identical.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    “You don’t know what you don’t know” is a popular phrase — it’s just funny how Rumsfeld delivered the lines in a public briefing.

  6. Chris Yeh says:

    I’d rather live in a hurricane zone, but I live in an earthquake zone, and don’t plan to move.

    I guess the message is that natural disasters aren’t high on the list of criteria I use to pick my abode!

  7. Vince Williams says:

    I’ve lived in Florida since 1965. I’ve observed that many people have to be psychologically traumatized by suffering some devastating loss, or see it happen to their neighbors, before they take the threat of hurricanes seriously.

    I think we have to take other facts into account when we consider ‘known’ unknowns versus ‘known’ unknowns (this sounds almost like a zen koan).

    For instance, surfers here eagerly anticipate hurricane season, because they know hurricanes generate big ocean swells.

    The only tension they suffer is the delicious uncertainty of not knowing the future path of the hurricane.

    Some of them fly down to the Bahamas to get better positioning, so they’re actually getting closer to the hurricane, rather than fleeing it.

    It’s a matter of perspective.

  8. Joe says:

    Hi Ben. You may be interested in our emergency preparedness software called Emergency File. It organizes and stores all of your emergency info in case of any emergency. Download a free trial at http://www.EmergencyFile.com.

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  18. Sonia says:

    Lived in California all my life, originally from the bay area, but now live in the central valley. I have never felt an earthquake before, supposedly they happen everyday but are too mild to feel.

    I have heard stories from friends about earthquakes, no one they know has ever died, but property damage to homes in LA and Bay area, yep. There is earthquake insurance for homes if you live on the coast! They also build homes differently here and do what they can to make them more safe- like no one has brick houses because brick would fall apart.

    I live an hour drive from san fran now- away from the fault line, so no need for earthquake insurance or any of that. No one ever feels anything in central california.

    From what I have seen about hurricanes- they look more dangerous. But again, I judge based on what I’ve seen on the news or in movies haha like people getting blown away into the sky or thrown 100mph wind into a wall or pole and getting killed. Towns being destroyed, hurricane Katrina. Property is SOOOOO cheap out there, it blows my mind. I figure it must be because hurricanes hit all those areas so property needs to be cheap or no one would want to live there?

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