Polls are weird

So there’s this article about a poll in which the pollsters announce what it is that Americans believe regarding New Orleans. It’s significant in that some of the finger-pointing that is going on is reflected in the poll, and will certainly be reflected in any upcoming elections.

The result they lead with, however, is that “most Americans believe New Orleans will never recover.”

Why does that matter? Most doctors didn’t believe Lance Armstrong would ever recover. Most of my friends didn’t believe I’d be full-time cartooning for more than six months. I’m sure we could come up with example after example of the “majority” believing that a small minority or an individual will not be able to accomplish the tasks which are set before him or her, and then that minority or individual pulling it off.

It’s almost like the pollsters and/or those reporting the results are trying to kill the city of New Orleans with bad vibes. I can see the value in telling us what the people think of the President, or the Governor, or the Mayor because at some point those elected officials may want to get RE-elected. But polling people who don’t live in New Orleans about rebuilding the city can only hinder the effort to rebuild it. After all, if most Americans think the city will never recover, then wouldn’t most Americans object to seeing tax dollars spent on the effort (note: THAT is not a question that was asked).

Then at the end the pollsters state their margin of error:

For poll results based on the total sample, one can say with 95 percent
confidence that the margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage
points. For results based on the 268 respondents who say the city of
New Orleans will completely recover from the effects of Katrina, the
maximum margin of sampling error is plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Did you catch that? The overall margin for error is 4 percent, but it’s SIX percent for the minority who actually think the city will recover completely. It’s not good enough that a majority thinks it won’t, now the pollsters have to cast statistical aspersions on the people who think it will.

Me, I know the city can never be exactly like it was before. Every city changes: knock one building down, close one family-owned deli, put in a traffic signal, and the city will “never be the same.” I believe that New Orleans will see an economic boom, and will emerge from this as a thriving port metropolis with a rich culture and rich history, of which this hurricane is only a part. Chris Muir said it pretty well: Can they rebuild? “They’ll make it look… well, the city IS called The Big Easy.”

35 thoughts on “Polls are weird”

  1. The MOE changes with sample size. They’re being more honest than most pollsters in reporting that when they talk about sub-samples of the overall sample. Wikipedia has an extensive entry for this:

    (I’m not a statistician, but I’ve had several stat and data analysis courses as part of my chemist training.)

    1. Oh, I know THAT. But they’re not “being honest.” They’re taking a dig at some of the respondents. You didn’t see them “being honest” with the MOE on the even smaller sample (13%) who blamed Bush for the problems following the event, did you?

      Nope. You didn’t. Why not? Because the other angle, discrediting the idea that the city CAN fully recover, is more interesting.

      1. They report the total sample size, the rest is derivable. I’m not going to defend the mainstream media; mostly I find journalists to be lazy idiots. (The “blogosphere” on the other hand are lazy, untrained, incoherent idiots. *shrug*)

        And do you think it is the pollsters or the media that result in the incomplete statistical information? Or an editor going “hmm, too many numbers, let’s just trim some the masses aren’t confused”? Is the incompleteness intentional in the sense of seeking to distort, or is is simply a quest for brevity that went too far? Honestly I think you’re making a mountain out a mole-hill, and could find far better and far larger things to get ticked about with regards to the Katrina disaster. The media misusing statistics is hardly new.

      2. Also, please note: “more honest” != “being honest”.

        😉 I simply mean that they’re being slightly better
        about reporting statistical information than they usually are. That a reporter woke up from their
        alcoholic stupor long enough to rise even slightly
        above the total swamp that most statistical reporting is, was in my humble opinion worth of some note.

  2. I believe they probably will rebuild Nawlins.

    But I have serious concerns about a city being there. I mean, the building of the city made the land sink, which caused the problem they have now (toxic cess-pool of a lake).

    Because I honestly don’t believe a city should be there, I have objections to the tax dollars I pay going to rebuild it, which I’m positive will happen, over my objections.

    I have no objections at all to private individuals building whatever they want down there, however.

    1. I don’t think it’s the city that caused the sinking, I think it’s the levees.

      Don’t build the levees, get flooded by the Mississippi, build the levees, delta dries out and you sink. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

      1. The process used in draining the swamp (of which building the levees was a part) combined with the weight of the buildings which were built on that drained swampland made the land sink.

        In addition to that, apparently the way the levees and other flood control systems are structured prevents the silt from the Mississippi from accumulating in the delta. They either trap the silt upstream behind dams or direct it straight into the gulf, while the delta itself gets eroded. Historically, the silt builds the wetlands of the delta, which help protect the coast from bad effects of massive storms like this.

        All these factors combined (1) caused the city to become a lake waiting to happen and (2) lessened natural features which help protect the area from damage from storms out of the gulf.

        It’s not a very good recipe. I much prefer Howard’s spicy food recipes.

  3. I really, really hope they don’t try to rebuilt New Orleans. That’s not going to stop them, but they made a geographical bowl surrounded by water and were surprised and shocked when physics took over.

    They really just need to build near it, keep the port there, or try to raise it above sea level. Something like they did for Chicago and San Fran around the turn of the century. Was it Galveston that was famous for the 10-15 ft ‘city lift’ they did?

      1. Actually, I think they can pull it off. I’ve been to the Netherlands, and their WHOLE COUNTRY is below sea level. Sure, they don’t get hurricanes with storm surges, but that problem CAN be engineered around.

        1) Taller levees. The height of the levee is what rates it for a particular category of storm. Katrina was a Category 4 storm with a Category 5 storm surge.

        2) Properly built levees. If the levee is exceeded, water is supposed to go OVER it. Not THROUGH it.

        3) Mo’ bigga pumps.

        There’ll be a city there, regardless. It’s the mouth of the biggest river in North America.


        1. With regards to 3) – I read that the city has been sinking 2-50 TIMES faster than they had thought. The more water they pump out of the ground (during non-flood conditions), the more the city sinks. The levees too, were sinking, and so their integrity was already in doubt. So it’s not just those three things, it’s reinforcing the whole bowl that the city is built in/on.

          1. They really need to raise it up a bit. 20 feet above sea level should be enough. How long does it take to fill up a landfill the size of new orleans by 40 feet? What if you had the whole region chipping in for materials.

          2. Amen. Can that be done, though? I know about as much civil engineering as I do neurosurgery and ancient Chinese history.

            And you know, it doesn’t have to be NICE landfill — we could just make it a giant dump for the next 50 years. I just don’t know enough, but I certainly don’t want to have to donate to the Red Cross AGAIN in 5 years.

          3. I don’t know how deep Tokyo Bay is, or how tall above sea level Dream Island is, but it has been done once before with that. It’s also a question of how long it took tokyo to make that much trash and what the square footage and height from the base of the ocean the island is compared to the square footage and required depth of the new orleans backfill.

            A friend of mine told me that the CN Tower in Toronto was built on some sort of landfill as well, so that would indicate that it can be fairly stable ground.

          1. ALL reclaimed land sinks over time

            Yes, the Netherlands is sinking. Most reclaimed land slowly sinks, it’s the nature of the beast. Er, dirt. There are a lot of interesting options being considered in the Netherlands, including controlled flooding to prevent levee failure, and floating houses, roadways, etc. so that they are not washed away by the (inevitable) floods. I’m sure they’d have some good advice on rebuilding New Orleans, if anybody bothered to ask.


  4. This is a good thing

    I _want_ the feds to think long and hard before committing $billions of taxpayer money to rebuild. That kind of money shouldn’t be thrown around as a knee-jerk reaction.

  5. A lot of the incredulity is that it’s no small task to build a city, much less restore it to what it used to be. In that sense, I think it’s still accurate to say that New Orleans won’t be rebuilt.

    I was thinking about this a few days ago and musing about San Francisco’s various disasters. Consider that after a fairly major earthquake and a devastating fire at the turn of the century, they rebuilt the city.

    Although in this age of fairly cheap and long distance transportation, I wonder if other cities will experience a boom in population while New Orleans struggles to retain a fraction of its populace pre-earthquake.

    1. It will be rebuilt, although it may not be rebuilt to the same population levels. There’s already a good core to work from with the area around the convention center that isn’t flooded. You start from there and work out.

      Because it’s the biggest port in the US by traffic, and it’s the furthest north place a port could easily be built on the mississippi, it will be rebuilt if only for enough capacity to keep the port open and housing, stores, etc for the people living there. Many people will come back as more of the city reopens. It’s just a matter of time. It may not get back to the full 450 thousand, but it will be back to being a fully functional city.

  6. Of course we’ll rebuild. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. We are America – rebuilding from disaster is something we’re good at. Chicago burned at the turn of the Century. San Francisco was flattened by earthquakes in the early years of the 20th century, and again in the late 1980’s. Florida has been devastated by numerous hurricanes – Hugo, Andrew, Bob, etc; just in recent years. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Mt. St. Helens. Guess what, people? Nothing’s exactly the same, but we rebuild, we regrow, we recoup our losses. A flood isn’t the end of the city. For the survivors, it’s a reminder to build it better.

    As for the government… there’s always those willing to assign blame for failure to act before the problem occurs, though I can’t understand the logic. However, I do agree that there should have been a more rapid deployment of the national guard for rescue and security, regardless of the State government’s objections and the constitutional implications. But, you know, there’s not a person in the country who can just snap their fingers and have things happen instantly. Not even celebrities who use undersize, sinking boats to ferry their entourage around while taking pictures of refugees – even if they were good in Mystic River.

    1. 1) How much of the city and related infrastructure survived?
      2) How much cleanup would be required to resume building, compared to starting from scratch in the second best choice, or growing an existing area to take over the role?
      3) How vulnerable would a city built in the same location be to a second disaster of the same kind, compared to the second best choice?

      And is 1 > 2 + 3?

      For example, with the Chicago Fire, for question 1, the streets and railroads leading into the city, as well as a significant part of the city itself, survived the fire. (According to wikipedia, while I had difficulty getting information about how much was not destroyed, it appears that 2/3 of the residential area was not burned.) For question 2, removing rubble from the burned areas would probably require effort comparable to breaking new ground elsewhere. For question 3, rebuilding over the ruins would be no more prone to fire than rebuilding elsewhere. Overall, there are significant advantages, and minimal disadvantages, to using the same site.

      By comparison, rebuilding on the remains of New Orleans requires significant cleanup, and a second hurricane in the area would hurt this area worse than most any other location. So, the real question is whether there’s an area that can substitute as a port, but is not currently 90% underwater, or 20 feet below sea level (and sinking).

      (I do think that New Orleans can make a full recovery if the effort is made, but the question of whether it should be rebuilt is a subject that shouldn’t be glossed over.)

      1. I disagree. “Whether or not” to rebuild is not a question I can even consider asking. “How long before we start rebuilding”, or “What can be done better than before, since we have to rebuild anyway, so that the city will better endure natural disasters like this?” are questions worth asking.

        From a practical point of view, New Orleans has the perfect site for a world-class port, of both the not-insignificant Mississippi river freight traffic, as well as a seaport well suited to berth ships going to/from Latin America or through the Canal to the Pacific. There is simply too much potential to let ourselves be worried by “whether or not”. We will rebuild, the real question is whether or not we learn the right lessons from this disaster.

    2. San Francisco was flattened by earthquakes in the early years of the 20th century, and again in the late 1980’s.


      San Francisco wasn’t “flattened” by the Loma Prieta quake. There was damage to a number of buildings and other structures, a few square blocks in the Marina District (built on fill, turns to jello in a quake) crashed and burned, and the Bay Bridge lost some sections of roadway. But the city was hardly “flattened.”

  7. New Orleans will be rebuilt. Period. Not for Mardi Gras, not because “it’s what we do,” but because New Orleans is necessary. The Port of New Orleans is the busiest in the country and fifth-busiest in the world. Remember, nearly every river of note between the Alleghenies and the Rockies flows into the Mississippi, and the Mississippi dumps out at New Orleans. Nearly every bit of bulk cargo going to or from the midwest goes through New Orleans. ““It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist.”


  8. I’m pretty sure that NO will be rebuilt. If there’s one thing that human history proves, it’s that people rarely learn from their mistakes.

  9. Everything here in Louisiana is hunky doory

    Well as good as can be expected anyway. The rest of the nation underestimates us, our media people abuse us, but we are all picking up the pieces and rebuilding. I’m from a hardy stock of people, and I can’t speak for everyone, but for me life is returning to normal. I’m in Baton Rouge and things here are crowded, and traffic is bad, but life is continueing as normal.

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