At the Annual Partners Meeting

Each year the National Weather Service and myriad partners meet for a face-to-face, high-level look at their ongoing collaboration. The dialogue is always wide-ranging and covers a number of complex issues. Each cooperative effort brings an extended history, poses present challenges, and faces a problematic future. The discussion exposes no more than the tip of an iceberg of projects and works in progress. An ocean of acronyms underlies the entire conversation.

Hard to summarize! But here are a few vignettes from this year’s meeting, which took place Monday and Tuesday:

First, this year’s meeting was extended to a day and a half, providing a bit more time for deeper information exchange. Second, Louis Uccellini, the newly-minted NWS Director, was present and enthusiastically engaged throughout. Dr. Uccellini comes to the job from many years’ tenure as director of the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction, and that heritage shows. The segments of the discussion that he led personally dwelt on budget matters, efforts to improve the numerical weather prediction and the computing infrastructure that underpins so much of the weather industry’s products and services.

Here the news is good. The Congressional Sandy supplemental includes funding that over the next two years should greatly increase NWS computing power and bring corresponding model improvements in its train. Both House and Senate marks for the 2014 NWS budget are in line with, and even (slightly) exceed the Presidential request. Of course, our meteorological community knows forecasts, and the current forecast is that same deeply-polarized Congress will find it difficult to pass an actual budget, leaving NWS to struggle with a more problematic continuing resolution.

Dr. Uccellini’s personal remarks on service delivery at the local level to specific people in harm’s way were less extended, but that doesn’t mean the topic didn’t receive full attention from others. In fact, in various forms, this made up the bulk of the agenda. Weather Service leaders reported on efforts to simplify and clarify the language of hazards watches and warnings. They updated the status of marine and tropical services, with emphasis on new products for storm surge (a major need evident from recent events such as Hurricanes Irene and Sandy). They explored ways to work more collaboratively on the task of technology transfer (R2O); and did much more. Private-sector representatives reported on wireless emergency alerts, those (90-character) messages that pop-up un-requested on our smartphones. [Turns out, if you haven’t noticed, that the messages with severe weather content by far outnumber alerts of any other stripe.] One highlight of the first day was a thoughtful talk by Lans Rothfusz of NOAA’s Severe Storms Research Laboratory; he undertook the massive and complex task of reframing the warning process for environmental threats from first principles.

NOAA/NWS Weather-Ready Nation efforts took up a significant block of time. Two points were clear. First, the National Weather Service leadership sees social science as a big driver. This recognition is most welcome, but it’s important to be mindful of and to apply all of what social science has to teach. The various disciplines have a lot to say about how to craft risk communications to fullest effect. All well and good. But the social sciences also teach that major community efforts… with long-term implications for all community members (and by this measure, building disaster resilience would certainly qualify)… lead to the best outcomes when they draw in all community members collaboratively as equal partners from the beginning, and throughout the process.

NWS leaders appear to recognize this as well. To quote them: NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation is “about building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events;” it’s about community-level decisions and actions and not just an internal NWS effort. They are realistic about the size of the job.

It’s also clear that they’re struggling a bit to make inroads; the task isn’t easy!

In the meantime, to quote John Lennon: “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The world is moving forward. The lessons from Joplin, Hurricane Sandy, Moore, and recent drought, wildfire, and flooding events have been so stark that communities are waking up to the risks they face. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation currently has a 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge on offer. Judith Rodin, Rockefeller Foundation president, states that this $100M initiative will offer each winning city three forms of support:

  • Membership in the newly formed 100 Resilient Cities Network, which will provide support to member cities and share new knowledge and resilience best practices.
  • Support to hire a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), a new innovation. The CRO will oversee the development of a resilience strategy for the city.
  • Support to create a resilience plan, along with tools and resources for implementation.

The good news is that our country of thousands of currently-vulnerable communities is cheering the NWS and its partners on, wishing us every success. On the other hand, the emergence of this and similar initiatives might imply that we will soon find ourselves not leading the charge for a weather-ready nation, but working hard to keep up.

Our community ought to aspire to a more active leadership role. On its websites, the NWS invites us to do precisely that… to be, variously, “forces of nature” or a “Weather-Ready Nation ambassadors.” As individuals and institutions, we would do well to consider how we each might join them in that cause, if not by such a name, by some other structured and sustained means. We’d also do well to keep in mind that resilience should begin with good land use and building codes and similar measures. It’s not about managing emergency response of greater scope and complexity. It’s instead about reducing the need for such emergency response in the first place. Our forecasts and warnings can best help communities deal with small residual risks remaining after the main vulnerabilities have been mitigated in other ways.

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