“Forecasting the weather” vs. “protecting life and property?” Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reveal important policy implications.
An earlier pair of LOTRW posts introduced this subject. They argued that the shift from merely predicting the state of the atmosphere to use of that information to save lives and property was a big jump – not some incremental step. The posts hinted at the existence of implications for policy, but left those to a future discussion.
The future is now.
The subject is a broad one, and can be framed in many ways. To spur thought, here are three policy challenges. (Please critique and/or substitute your additional, better ideas.) Here goes…
Policy Challenge #1. Harvey and Irma make clear that deterministic weather forecasts per se can indeed protect lives, but are of limited value when it comes to saving property (or for that matter, ensuring business continuity – more on this later). Given reliable notice a week or ten days in advance, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a few million people, may be able to flee such storms. But with uncertainties at the front end, people find it difficult to evacuate early on, when the threat is only a probability and when traffic is still moving freely. It’s all to easy to delay and then get trapped with thousands of others in the grind of inching along the road, bumper-to-bumper for hours even as gasoline and other necessities are suddenly nowhere to be found along the way.
Evacuees aren’t able to take their homes with them. They can’t take their places of employment with them. They can’t relocate the schools for their children or the hospitals providing family healthcare out of harm’s way. As Harvey and Irma teach, we can evacuate and save our lives, but the quality of our lives has become much diminished – days or even years after the actual hazard has come and gone. Passing empty hours in a shelter? Returning home, only to spend days on end moving ruined possessions out to the street and fighting to prevent the spread of mold in the remaining, still waterlogged, shell? Searching for a new job versus going to the familiar one? Waiting in endless lines at government agencies competing for attention and a few scraps of help? To live this way is to experience a co-mingling of boredom, exhaustion, fear, and frustration –all the while seeing neither any end in sight nor reason to hope.
Here’s the reality. If meteorologists are to save property, we do it best not by our forecasts but by doing our bit to promote policies that make home the safest place to be (versus a point of embarkation for families to evacuate), that make it more likely the old job will be waiting as soon as the hazard has passed, that see to it that natural hazards remain natural (e.g., that floods represent rising water levels but don’t degrade into a toxic cocktail of raw sewage, pollutants, and animal carcasses). Those policies emphasize appropriate land use (e.g., not building in the floodplain), rigorous building codes, resilient critical infrastructure, and appropriately-regulated siting and operation of chemical production and storage.
Meteorology plays a role in all this! But it starts not from short-term physical forecasts so much as guidance from past experience – what climatology can tell us about hazard risk over the lifespans of buildings and infrastructure, rather than the precise extent or timing of particular events (as well as what we can say about how climate is changing and why). When such information is used effectively, then hazard risk management emphasizes reducing the need for evacuation, versus management of evacuations of ever great numbers, areal extent, and complexity.
A side note about business continuity. In the United States, the loss profile from hazards has shifted through history. Loss-of-life figures are noisy (witness the losses of 1800 people in Katrina and more than 1000 people during the 2011 hurricane season) but have been generally declining over past decades. Property losses have risen, commensurate with population increase and property exposure in hazard-prone areas, especially along the coasts. In recent years, however – with the emergence of just-in-time, zero-inventory manufacturing, global supply chains, and dependence of both communities and industry on critical infrastructure – losses due to business interruption are growing, becoming comparable to property losses per se. Thanks to the role of information technology in enabling these shifts, with real-time control of processes, weather forecasts can reduce some of the business disruption – but not all.
Policy Challenge #2. Extreme events are nature’s way of doing business, but disasters – disruptions of entire communities, persisting after the hazard has come and gone, and exceeding the community’s ability to recover on its own – are a human construct. As a result, social trends including urbanization, globalization of commerce, and dependence on critical infrastructure are changing the very nature of disasters – and on time frames short compared with the recurrence rate of rare extremes. As a result, there is little opportunity for trial-and-error learning. To protect property and prevent or at least reduce community and business disruption going forward will require continuing innovation – of new technology development and societal uptake of those advances – at a pace far greater than anything we’ve known.
Two big arenas for such innovation in the Earth observations, science, and services community? First, advances in observing capacity – new instruments, ground-based, and space-based platforms – promise unprecedented resolution, spatial coverage, and diagnostic power. Second, exascale computers, able to make a billion-billion calculations/second – 1000 times present speeds – are coming on line over the next few years. Together these developments will allow us to push back the time horizons for deterministic weather forecasts as well as extend our ability to make climate projections decades into the future. But that’s not all. They will fuel the explosive growth of big data, data analytics and cognitive computing – entirely new capabilities that will allow us to anticipate and forestall any ratcheting-up of vulnerability to natural hazards resulting from changes in land use, construction, population growth, and the deployment of new critical infrastructure.
But closer examination of these two challenges – the protection of property, and innovation – reveals
Policy Challenge #3. We need to rework the policy framework that allows the public, private, and academic sectors to collaborate in building resilience to hazards. The principal-agent separation that governs so much of the relationship between governments and business at all levels has served us well for two centuries, minimizing the potential for conflicts of interest, corruption, and other ills that plague many countries today worldwide. But it fails us here. Much of the growing U.S. vulnerability to hazards stems from the way governments and private enterprise have engaged with each other, or maintained each other at arm’s length, over that same time period. Stereotypes of independence and free markets, and over-simplified characterizations of public- and private goods have blinded all parties to the realities that these distinctions have blurred or become obsolete, or perhaps never were as real or useful as they’d once seemed. Similarly, the speed and type of innovation required to make communities, businesses, governments, and nations more resilient will never be achieved by government or the private sector acting alone, and will never be achieved so long as academia remains an uninvolved, scholarly critic; academia has to be invited to the table.
Whew! Far easier to identify a few challenges than to market them to the larger society we serve , let alone make some actual progress with respect to each. Clearly “above the meteorologists’ pay-grade.”
We can’t do it alone. But we have to make a start. Otherwise, property losses and community and business disruption from hazards will only continue to grow.
 Part of the reason for my hesitancy. I’d promised a follow-on at that time, but upon reflection, struggled to find an approach that would capture the complexity, breadth, and sheer moment of the topic. In short, I’ve suffered writer’s block. The two hurricanes helped focus me on three big pieces. Even though the discussion here is necessarily flawed/incomplete, perhaps it provides a starting point for broader community thinking.