More on what we can learn from Hurricane Irene

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

To those of a certain age, this line is iconic Bob Dylan, taken from his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” A radical left organization, the Revolutionary Youth Movement of the Students for a Democratic Society, took their name of Weathermen from this tune.[1] Fifty years later, the song and the phrase have not lost their power to polarize. An example? Glenn Beck has referred to it within the past year or so, mobilizing his base…

Today, though, let’s appropriate the phrase to characterize a revolution of a happier, quieter sort. The proximate impetus? Twofold: (1) news coverage and headlines on hurricane Irene and its aftermath over recent days, and (2) a suggestion from a colleague who opined (offline) after reading my last post that I should be emphasizing some of the more positive aspects of this latest Irene experience. As events have unfolded following Irene’s passage, she’s looking ever more spot on. Here’s why.

Weathermen (and women) increasingly know which way the wind blows. When Bob Dylan wrote the song back in the 1960’s, he was talking about a nowcast – which way is the wind blowing at the present moment? And he was writing at a time when numerical weather prediction was in its infancy and satellite observations and other technologies were non-existent. Weather forecasts were the butt of jokes. Weather nowcasts were the butt of jokes. The man on the street would admonish the weather forecaster to “look out the window!”

Today, that phrase seems shopworn, out of place. It no longer resonates. That’s because with the intervening half-century of research, improved observations and numerical models, today’s weather forecasts are good enough that emergency managers and political leaders can bet the farm – even bet an entire state – on the forecasts. They no longer need to wait for the actual event. Thus, after Irene, the media can quote FEMA director Craig Fugate to the effect that perhaps ten years ago, emergency managers would have been forced to evacuate coastal Floridians as a precautionary measure, but today they could be sufficiently confident in the forecast that as Irene approached land it would veer north and hit North Carolina and Virginia. Furthermore, FEMA is continuing the trend in recent years to aggressively pre-position emergency response assets based on the storm forecast, not just on what has already happened. And FEMA is no longer waiting for state requests for disaster assistance but is taking initiative earlier on. [For more on Fugate’s thoughtful press conference of two days ago, click here.]

In the same way, forecasts predicted heavy rainfalls and flooding across New England. Those forecasts, as we know, also verified.

That’s part of the story. But the bigger part of the story is that

Non-weathermen also know which way the wind blows. Look at what has happened over the weekend and since. The president, even while on vacation, showed, and continues to show, leadership and concern during the crisis. Every governor of every affected coastal state, from North Carolina through New England, has gotten out in front of the story. On TV, you’re not just seeing state- and local emergency managers. They’re there, to be sure. But it’s also the governors who have all been visible, showing awareness, modeling leadership, demonstrating a nuanced and sensitive understanding of the interplay between the natural event – the hurricane, the high winds, the storm surge, the rainfall – and the societal impact: the loss of life, the property damage, the business and community disruption. They’re out walking the communities, listening to the survivors, showing that they get it – they grasp the enormity of what has just occurred and its implications for the future of their people, their health and safety, their economy, their school systems. They see the link between natural extremes and the prospects for their states. [The same is also true at the community level – but also more expected there.]

Note that this has come from governors of every political persuasion, ranging from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York. Hazards, and the way communities need to respond, continues to be seen, correctly, as transcending politics.

Increasingly, these same political leaders understand what it takes to know which way the wind blows. In the past, some political leaders have been naïve about the origins of their weather services. A member of Congress reputedly questioned why we needed a weather service when he got his forecasts from The Weather Channel. For the past few months, however, President Obama and others have been publicly emphasizing the importance of maintaining government-funded Earth observations, science, and service, as well as the continuity of that funding.

News analysts who usually address what are traditionally considered the broader political concerns (e.g., jobs, education, health care, foreign policy, etc.) have joined in the same discussion. For one example of many these past few days, consider Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post of August 29. In this column, Milbank contrasts what he calls the “Irene Government” with the “Katrina Government” and forecasts a return to the latter if Congress fails to augment funding for NOAA and FEMA, and soon. Many others have raised concerns about gaps in funding for NOAA satellites and other NOAA and FEMA programs – and their implications for hazard warnings and emergency response in the future. Remember the dysfunction of the Katrina response – from emergency managers at several levels, but also from political leaders, many of whom couldn’t be bothered to participate in table-top exercises to prepare themselves? Political leaders who were seemingly AWOL when their leadership was most needed? No one wants a return to those days. And that brings us to the next point:

This new understanding of non-weathermen is related to media coverage. You and I have seen some criticism the past few days from some quarters about media hype. Too much was made of hurricane Irene, some say. Others claim that metropolitan New York, with its evacuations and mass-transit precautionary measures, over-reacted. And so on. But the news channels, the major newspapers, and others covered this story haven’t achieved their success by miss-gauging public interests and concerns. They’re feeding the public the stories that the public wants.

And over recent months, the public has shown an appreciation for the gravity of the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, Japan – and Washington DC. The public has seen the flooding across the midsection of the United States, and the drought and oppressive heat of the summer in the Sun Belt. The public was shaken by the violence of the spring tornado season. And part of the reason has been detailed and extensive press coverage of these events, including a lot of background on community resilience and measures that can be taken with respect to land use and building codes to reduce economic disruption; and improvements needed in both forecasts and the communication of those forecasts to reduce the loss of life and injury.

One piece of that emergent understanding, on the part of both the media and the public? Taking to heart the idea that past land use and construction, past location of schools and hospitals and businesses and critical infrastructure, has made it necessary today for all of us to rely on public awareness, warnings, and effective emergency response for basic safety in the face of hazards. Home or work or schools or hospitals are not necessarily the the safest places to be. So as New York evacuated hospitals prior to Irene, everyone realized that this is the present-day price of past decisions. And because weather forecasts, no matter how good, will always contain an element of uncertainty, so also will community officials and business leaders have to continue to take conservative measures in the face of forecast hazards.

So, it turns out that when it comes to coping with natural hazards, you really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. And today it’s blowing in a new, fresh, more realistic direction.

Feel that breeze?

[1] I went to college with someone who later became a member.



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