The fog of war…and the Hurricane Sandy forecasts and emergency response.

Wikipedia tells us that the fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.

The entry goes on to attribute the notion to the famous Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz, who in his posthumously-published classic Vom Kriege stated Der Krieg ist das Gebiet der Ungewißheit; drei Vierteile derjenigen Dinge, worauf das Handeln im Kriege gebaut wird, liegen im Nebel einer mehr oder weniger großen Ungewißheit. Hier ist es also zuerst, wo ein feiner, durchdringender Verstand in Anspruch genommen wird, um mit dem Takte seines Urteils die Wahrheit herauszufühlen.

The Wikipedia entry tells us that the ambiguity encapsulated in this phrase poses a slightly different aspect or presents a different nature depending upon the level of engagement. It cites four such levels, which it labels, respectively: grand strategic, military strategic, operational, and tactical. The distinctions are interesting, and merit a complete and thoughtful read. However, the general idea is that military are often in doubt as to the intent, capabilities, structure, disposition, and capabilities of the enemy, and that the nature of this uncertainty and the tempo of decisions and actions picks up as combat unfolds.

Any emergency manager will tell you that something similar happens in emergency response, even if there is no human adversary. The nature, location, extent and strength of an approaching storm can be known only to a certain point. Emergency managers work with the general public as opposed to well-trained and disciplined troops. The best plans become useless early on.

The National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service headquarters, and NWS field offices, as well as federal, state, and local emergency managers and their private-sector partners operated at different levels in this environment in the days and hours leading up to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on the New Jersey coast.

Unsurprisingly, the results were less than perfect.

Since that time, the National Weather Service has come under criticism for its handling of the forecasts and warnings themselves…most notably for a change in nomenclature as the storm itself underwent changes (dropping the “hurricane” label at a critical juncture) and for its handling of the post-event assessment. The criticism has come from some respected quarters. Bryan Norcross played a laudatory role in providing public broadcast coverage during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Mike Smith has provided useful warnings to his private-sector clients for decades. Jason Samenow and Eric Holthaus commented most recently in the Washington Post. All these comments aren’t being taken lightly, nor should they be.

It’s likely that none of the participants (neither the critics nor the targets of that criticism) will enjoy the process, but in the end, the dialog and all its attendant pain for all parties will improve the language of forecasts and warnings, and their use by emergency responders in future events…at least, future events similar to this one.

That said, we are left with a twofold problem, which none of the current dust-up will cure. The first is that the complaints have been confined to the forecasters and the responders…those who were operating in the fog of war. The fog will be there the next time as well, and will once again thwart any and all efforts at perfection. [Even if it won’t thwart second-guessing after the fact.] The second is that even if we achieve perfection in this aspect of our risk management, there will still be tragic loss: fatalities. Injuries. Pain and suffering. Property loss. Economic disruption. Years of rebuilding. Once the elderly, the sick, the poor, and the underrepresented are being told to evacuate, once the water and the sand are overflowing the streets and coming into people’s living rooms, confusion rules and the battle has been lost.

The real battleground; the real arena? Years of sunny days all along the middle-Atlantic and New England coast, when an entire population (You. Me. All of us) made short-sighted decisions about land use and building codes, about the deployment and extent and quality of critical infrastructure ranging from roads and utility lines to subway construction.

The real question? Why did we, when we knew better, make the flawed decisions and investments we did over all those years?

And why…even as we know we are one day closer to an earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone, or the Hayward fault, or a direct hurricane hit on Miami, or a failure of those dikes and levees in the Sacramento Delta … are we doing nothing about these future catastrophes? Why do we continue to build up vulnerability in these and other sites all across America? What is it about our psychological makeup and our public policies that lead us down this path every time? It’s something of a mystery.

Von Clausewitz might have put it this way: why, when we know that war (or emergency response) ends badly, do our leaders and our publics allow it/make it necessary?

Your thoughts?

[Observations on this topic from Mike, Eric, Jason, and Bryan would be particularly welcome.]

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3 Responses to The fog of war…and the Hurricane Sandy forecasts and emergency response.

  1. Lover Girl says:


    I am having a little trouble translating the German. Bitten help me.


  2. Great question, honey. Here’s the translation:

    “War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment).”

  3. Pingback: Week in review 12/8/12 | Climate Etc.

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