Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tornado Summit

I had the chance to attend the Tornado Summit with attendees from emergency management (EM), physical and social scientists, and Insurance representatives. I couldnt be everywhere so I missed all the Insurance breakout sessions. I usually enjoy seeing a different perspective but there simply was no time. My main mission was to conduct short surveys of EM professionals for our NOAA grant relating to Social and behavorial influences on weather driven decisions. That mission was accomplished and I got to meet some interesting and dedicated professionals.

The breakout sessions, as they are called, were interesting. I heard a few EM talks where the subject related more to mutual benefit in post disaster recovery operations. This was largely a public private partnership with local business. The goal of this partnership is to get communities back on their feet by utilizing local businesses to assist in the recovery effort (they are still paid, and the price is reduced) especially in mass feedings. This helps survivors immediately after the disaster and allows businesses to be maintained (albeit in some altered form though not always). The statistics I heard included: roughly 40 percent of impacted businesses fail post disaster, and 20 percent of the remaining businesses fail after 1 year. In another talk it was mentioned that small town recovery can take anywhere north of 5-8 years to "recover". There was no mention of whether this was complete recovery or not, but suffice it to say that disasters have a particular harsh impact on local communities. After all, all disasters are local.

For those wondering about the savings that local businesses can potentially offer, the example of MRE's versus home cooked local food was roughly 50 percent ($9 MRE versus $4-5 local cuisine cited in this example as beans and rice/jambalaya). Granted an MRE has enough calories to last a full day, that isnt exactly how people are accustomed to eating. But this seemed like a mutually beneficial way that local communities could assist in their own recovery. Other benefits were not mentioned but I can ASSume that the sense of community that the businesses have a role in providing is equally valuable and comforting in a time of crisis.

Another talk detailed an example of the 29 FEB 2012 Tornado rated EF4 in Harrisburg IL. The perspective was from a recovery effort in the weeks after the tornado in a small town of 9K people with little in the way of emergency management infrastructure. Frequently, Dr. Rozdilsky mentioned the underfunded EM department. They had little in the way of an emergency operations center (EOC) and pretty much had to borrow space to mount the search and rescue and recovery efforts ... from a borrowed court room, to the generosity of a landlord of an empty retail space. If you live in a small town, under downtrodden local economic conditions these disasters, no matter the strength of the tornado, WILL have huge impacts and the length of time to recovery can be equally devastating.

There is room here for debate about what it costs a small community to fund EM departments and whether or not communities are willing to take the risk of paying up front or paying afterward. But in states with big cities (Illinois has Chicago), Presidential disaster declaration may not meet FEMA guidelines because the state should have the money to recover. There is movement afoot to have equity in such circumstances but given recent political, budgetary ailments no one was particularly excited that such efforts would receive strong backing. After all this would be a net expense imposed on the federal side. As far as other issues this may drudge up, I am in unfamiliar territory and will be happy to offer corrections if I am mistaken. This is the nature of walking into new areas of investigation.

A hot topic is always social media and its use in reaching new people, providing information, and offering more opportunities for two-way communication. The EM community is rather taken with social media and use it quite vigorously. As such, Dr.'s Silva, Jenkins-Smith, and Ripberger discussed tornadoes and twitter. Their work is just starting but is intriguing, taking the perspective of ... can twitter be considered an observation platform? This requires measuring the full spectrum of weather specific tweets and separating the wheat from the chaffe ... the signal from the noise. Needless to say, a lot of undergraduate and graduate students will be analyzing millions of tweets! The point is to validate if a signal is present and how to harness said signal in a more objective way in real time. Understanding its value and further how to use it will depend critically on the strength of the signal and its content.

The experience was beneficial and productive and I hope the summit continues and expands to bring these diverse communities together. These meetings are suitable for introducing communities to each and exposing their unique "languages", approaches, philosophies,  and beliefs. All of these elements contribute to the eventual goal of allowing participants to "speak the same language" so that we can work together in more coherent ways and help bridge the gap in each others needs.