Monday, January 7, 2013

Being consistent

Consistency is key. Consistency from forecast to forecast*. Consistency from big event to big event**.  This is all about being credible, accessible if you will. Getting the benefit of the doubt via past experience. It also means being measured. Taking risks only when you have to. Its playing long-ball. It is very easy to lose credibility and much harder to get it back once you lose it.

Such was a case during Hurricane Sandy when the National Hurricane Center forecast that Sandy would no longer be a hurricane instead becoming embedded with a much larger storm system. Complicated scenario though it was they deemed it consistent to put in place high-wind warnings by the local NWS offices. After all this wouldn't be a normal situation. Surge would be life threatening along the coast anywhere around landfall all the way through RI and points north. They opted for impacts instead of phenomena.

What transpired next was a tongue lashing from folks wanting hurricane warnings, citing that hurricane warnings would be more effective AND to emphasize the impacts. Maybe Hurricane warnings would be more effective. Maybe not. We may never know, since we do not have an alternate Earth with which to test that particular hypothesis. The impacts were well emphasized: life threatening flooding at the coast and inland, places that flood would be inundated by 10 feet of water, and winds would be strong to cause significant damage.

Were impacts correctly forecast? In some instances they were. Damage from winds was found through NY and NYC, including dangling cranes. Beaches were eroded and barriers islands were inundated in NJ and NY while in CT the water rose and swallowed homes. In some instances not. The storm did not track close enough to CT to unleash the same fury on CT's coastline. Why? the surge was lower (but not insiginificant), but waves atop the surge were somewhat lacking for the type of damage seen in Irene. Winds were much stronger there (away from what was the center of Sandy) especially at the coast but not inland, and power outages were spotty. Why? The CT Governor cited aggressive tree trimming in the aftermath of Irene.

Too many lives were lost, mostly people who did not evacuate. Mostly from people who maybe couldn't evacuate or were unwilling to. We don't know all the answers because those folks are dead. We do know that many people died in the aftermath, drowning in floodwaters, succumbing to injuries during rescues or clean up (trees falling). Some passing because their medical conditions or medical equipment could not be sustained in the power outages.

But this is what happens in disasters. Its a disaster for a reason, because whatever you think you can do, you can't for failure of imagination or what have you. Its a failure of imagination, an admission we all have to make under extreme uncertainty. What if the forecast said water would be over your head. if you have never experienced or seen water over your head in the place you call home for 50 years, what would you think about? "Sounds Ludicrous! They must be wrong because that has never happened here." Its surreal. Something you can't or don't want to consider.

Much of the same was mentioned at the Weather Ready Nation meeting about the April 2011 tornadoes. "I cant believe that many people died" people were saying in my session. I was not being arrogant when I stated I wasn't surprised. Thats what happens when tornadoes, violent and long-track, plow through populated areas include major metros. High population density + tornadoes = BAD. It wasn't long after that a violent tornado took out a section of Joplin, MO with the same result.

Can these events be prevented? Probably not. Can we all do better at working on communication protocols, communication strategies, graphics, and understanding to make forecasts more credible and accessible? We sure can. But it isn't an easy task to connect with ALL the people that make decisions for the various entities out there.

Take the nursing homes^ and hospitals. Very fragile, large populations to deal with. You dont just need to know the forecast. You need the details. if I leave here, where will the patients go? Can we  be safe in transit (after all just moving fragile people puts them at significant risk of death)? Will we be putting people in harms way if the forecast changes? Will we be putting others at risk by filling up nearby or far away hospitals/homes? These are not easy questions. Why? The forecast for Sandy Landfall was uncertain and went south of the forecast landfall at 48 hrs. If it would have gone north, it could be a totally different story for the impacts. And that is why this is not clear cut case of anything. Sure the forecast was Sandy was much better at 7 days than ever before. Is this an outlier event? Probably.

The consistency effect will be on display again for the next storm when people start asking for accuracy at 7 and 5 days and we have to explain that isnt possible for this storm. There is much work to be done. But chill on the finger pointing. Its one thing to offer criticism but dont board the hype train. Play long-ball, understand the challenges, and address them. When you find the speculation beast emerging ... remember that we cant know everything. And we arent wealthy enough to have backup plans A thru Z.


*Except when the forecast changes. Then you argue for changing the forecast because the data or information have changed. Then it becomes a different problem, minimizing wild swings so you don't lose credibility, accuracy or deviate from a messaging strategy that works (even if modestly).

**Big events always have their unique aspects. They dont come in pairs to leverage skill from.

^Did you know that nursing homes dont have to have generators? Look it up. They are at risk from power outages in general let alone days of no power.