Irene slams East Coast, but MIT mostly spared

‘Over-warning’ against storm dangers the right approach, says EAPS professor

4168 irene 4
A bird takes refuge on the dock of Pierce Boat House during Tropical Storm Irene this Sunday.
Manohar Srikanth—The Tech
4171 irene 1
On Sunday, Tropical Storm Irene’s high winds tore a tree branch on the median of Memorial Drive outside of McCormick Hall. Boston recorded gusts as high as 63 mph as Irene made her way across New England.
Manohar srikanth—The Tech
4172 irene 3
Many branches in Killian Court were downed after Tropical Storm Irene tore through Boston and Cambridge late Saturday night and Sunday morning. Five basements on campus were flooded, but MIT made it through mostly unscathed.
Manohar Srikanth—The Tech

Last Friday, Governor Deval L. Patrick declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and called 500 National Guard troops in preparation for the landfall of Hurricane Irene, to be joined by 2000 more on Saturday. The City of Cambridge activated Code Red phone alerts — which sent pre-recorded messages warning of the threat to all landlines and to opted-in cellular phone lines — and email and text messaging alerts were sent out to the MIT community announcing the Sunday closure of MIT and encouraging the community to stay indoors.

“We started preparing for Irene very early based on the forecast,” said MIT Director of Facility Operations and Security John DiFava. “We made sure everyone was aware of the fact that we were about to experience a hurricane.”

MIT Police also increased general patrol, but there were no police reports related to Irene. MIT also had extra custodial services and extra maintenance staff on campus to prepare for any damage.

Cafés and stores around Cambridge were advised to store or lock up all outdoor furniture, and advertisements on billboards in Porter Square were removed.

“The rain [forecast] was pretty close to being spot on,”said Professor Kerry A. Emanuel ’76 of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Making landfall in North Carolina on Saturday morning and again in New Jersey the following day, Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Cambridge Sunday morning. Tropical storms can still deliver wind speeds up to around 75 mph, but Irene had maximum winds of around 50 mph as it moved through New England (Boston recorded gusts as high as 63 mph). Eastern Massachusetts saw 4–6 inches of rain.

Convinced by pleas from Boston hospitals with shifts starting at 7 a.m. to postpone closure, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority shut down all public transit service at 8 a.m. Sunday morning instead of the originally scheduled 5 a.m., citing wind gusts as the primary concern; Boston Logan International Airport remained open, but many travelers experienced cancellations and delays. Despite warnings, Sunday in Cambridge saw many people walking outside — students continued to jog outdoors and make trips to Star Market as many saw the forecasts as an exaggeration of the actual conditions.

“Forecasters have gotten quite good in the last ten to twelve years in not just [determining] forecasts, but also determining the envelope of certainty,” said Emanuel of the perceived disparity between the forecasts and the actual conditions.

“This concept has been very hard to convey to the public.”

“Forecasters quite rightly tend to err a little bit on the side of the upper side of the envelope of certainty,” he added. “There are two kinds of approaches: over-warning, and under-warning; in [the latter] case, people get killed.”

Despite Sunday seeming like just another windy New England day, MIT campus had to address several fallen trees and many branches. In addition, segments of Amherst Alley and five basements on campus flooded, said DiFava. The mayor’s hotline of Cambridge received about 180 calls for downed trees, limbs, and wires, and 200,000 people in Massachusetts lost power.

The actual mean wind speed of about 35 mph was below the forecasted 60 mph; however, the damage done was largely due to the sudden strong gusts of wind in the 60 mph range. This, combined with the “envelope of certainty,” indicates that the actual conditions were well within what was predicted, according to Emanuel.

Irene caused adjustments in the Class of 2015 orientation schedule, with the Orientation Kick-Off moved a day earlier to Saturday afternoon and Convocation canceled. W20, the Student Center, was also closed entirely. Instead of a complete rescheduling of Convocation, President Susan Hockfield will address the Class of 2015 at today’s Keynote Address in Kresge Auditorium at 11:30 a.m.