NOAA’s self-assessment of how they did during Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy came out last week – a thoughtful and compelling piece of work produced in a compressed amount of time. The document goes on for 50+ pages, plus a summary (link below). It’s full of evidence, analysis, and conclusions that anyone involved with communications during hurricanes should read and take to heart. Dr. Louis Uccellini, the new top guy at the National Weather Service, has already said that they are going to move on the recommendations. A hopeful sign.
The yin and yang of it was that the Sandy forecasts from the National Hurricane Center were excellent, but the forecast-communications process was confusing. In fact, the dominant theme in the document was confusion. The word came up 20 times, in one form or the other, and the idea many more times than that.
If you read my blogs during and after Sandy, you know I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis. In spite of thousands of highly skilled people in the National Weather Service, emergency management, and throughout the weather-forecast communications system going full tilt, the information reaching mayors, emergency managers, broadcasters, and coastal residents was at times unclear, conflicting, and hard to find. In short, the system let us down.
The dramatic and heroic personal appeal to state officials and the public by the Meteorologist-in-Charge at the NWS Mt. Holly office is called out in the report. His call to action, no doubt, had a significant and positive impact on the New Jersey response. Also mentioned is the National Hurricane Center reaching out directly to the New York City Office of Emergency Management after Mayor Bloomberg went on TV that Saturday and exhibited a clear misunderstanding of the threat facing the city.
Both actions were examples of dedicated people inside of NOAA stepping up and doing what needed to be done… outside of the system. But these actions are also prima facia evidence that, overall, the NWS communications system wasn’t working. The magnitude of the threat was not hitting home. Neither action would have been necessary if NOAA’s hurricane-threat communications system had been delivering the message with the intensity and clarity that the situation required. The assessment report lists a number of logical steps to standardize, simplify, and centralize critical information. There’s now a clear path to progress.
Another messaging controversy during Sandy, of course, came from the National Weather Service’s decision NOT to issue hurricane warnings for the coastline north of North Carolina. The communications issues that ensued from that decision are well discussed in the report, and action has already been taken by the National Hurricane Center to keep it from happening again. But it’s worth calling out the bottom line: In a complicated communications environment, the last thing you want to do is to spin up a controversy when you have no way to control it. It’s not clear that the NWS, and the other public officials involved, understood that fundamental communications rule when the decision was made.
Politicians know this rule well, of course. During a campaign, anything that takes a candidate off-message is a bad thing. During the weekend before Sandy hit, every minute a broadcaster was talking about why there was no hurricane warning was a confusion-inducing lost opportunity. But, the NHC was in a box; the rules and systems didn’t account for a Sandy scenario. I think in retrospect they had a couple of options that would have worked out better, but there's no way to know for sure.
And that gets us to where my thinking diverges from the assessment report… mainly in three areas.
First, the report endorses the current NOAA thinking that distributing more graphical and text data on the web, through social media, and via mobile phones is a key part of the path to better communications. But, this idea is contrary to the evidence presented elsewhere in the report. According to multiple surveys, about 90% of the people affected by Sandy named television as their “source of the most recent (storm) information”. This number hasn’t changed significantly in decades of post-storm studies.
So why, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and easy communications, do people still rely on TV? It’s simple. No non-expert, which means almost nobody, is going to make a critical decision based on a piece of data: i.e. a text message or a graphic. Before you make the monumental decision to leave your home and possessions behind, you want somebody you trust to explain why you have to do it. You want to look them in the eye and know it’s the truth.
My conclusion is that NOAA should follow the recommendations of the report and clean up the mess of conflicting forecast-delivery formats, including the treasure hunt that was required during Sandy to get the full picture of the threat from a myriad of government websites. The National Weather Service needs a well-understood way to distribute a clear message. But, instead of spending valuable resources expanding social media and mobile-phone outreach, they should concentrate on improving the message through the most important communications path by far: television.
Which gets me to the second place I think the report goes a bit off track. The idea has developed that we’ll uncover the best way to communicate with the public if social scientists ask enough questions. What color should the map be? How big should the text be? How do users respond to red versus blue? In my opinion, this path will never lead to the answer.
Now, I love my social-science friends, and I think that understanding the answers to these questions is valuable work. But if that were all it took to understand how to motivate people, the TV networks wouldn’t have to cancel dozens of expensive programs every year because nobody watches. They could simply ask people what they want to see and produce those shows.
The flaw is that we start the investigation by assuming that we need more maps, so we ask social scientists to help us make the best maps possible. But, suppose that the biggest part of the problem is not related to the maps? You need mass-communications experts to sort this out, not behavioral scientists. The people that build systems to craft, control, and disseminate messages have the expertise we need.
I’m sure that any holistic solution will include packaging maps and data to make them user-friendly and distributing them over as many channels as possible. But I’m equally sure, that there is much more to the problem, and world-class communications expertise will be key to finding the solution.
Finally, I take issue with idea in Recommendation 13 that defines 48 hours before tropical-storm force winds as the magic hour when the NWS should start alerting people to the storm-surge threat. In fairness, the report says “at least 48 hours”, but in any case, that’s too late. It takes at least 3 days, and ideally 4 days, for a coastal population to mentally and physically prepare to evacuate.
Just the mental preparation is ideally a two-day process. The messages might be:
• Day 1 – “if the forecast is correct, an evacuation will be ordered in 2 days. Start thinking about what you would do to protect yourselves and your property”.
• Day 2 – “if there are no changes in the forecast by tomorrow, an evacuation order will be issued in the morning”.
The early messaging should include tips on where to park your car, what to do with valuable possessions, and other instructions that were never a part of the pre-Sandy conversation because they jumped right to the “get out” stage.
This doesn’t mean that specific storm surge numbers are required days in advance, but qualitative language can be very helpful. In the case of Sandy, a statement like, “the odds increasingly favor a higher storm surge from Sandy than we saw from Irene, and perhaps significantly higher” would have made a big difference. And that statement could have been made Thursday, more than 4 days before peak impact.
Every storm is different, but there is almost always important qualitative information to convey before the quantitative forecasts are released. An improved communications system should include a high-profile mechanism for conveying that information so the evacuation-communications process can begin earlier as well.
All of this is only possible with enough people to do the job, of course. The NOAA assessment report recommends expanding the storm-surge team at the NHC and filling critical empty slots throughout the National Weather Service. Fixing this will require a willingness to reexamine how resources are allocated within the NWS, but in the end, Congress has to step up. We’re talking about a nano-drop in the congressional budget. Let’s get on with it.
NOAA link: www.nws.noaa.gov/os/assessments/pdfs/Sandy13.pdf
Updated: 11:42 AM GMT on May 22, 2013
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