The Ever-Expanding Disaster Warning

There’s been a trend in the last four years or so by emergency managers, especially at the federal level, to get more descriptive in their language surrounding impending disasters. We’ve seen language warning folks that they will die if they stay in the path of incoming weather. We’ve had Governor Chris Christie telling people to get the hell off of the beach. We’ve threatened, we’ve cajoled.

And anecdotally, there’s been some movement. People have, to some extent, listened to these exhortations. But not everyone. And, more interestingly, not during every storm.

Take, for example, the derecho that swept through the Mid-Atlantic last year. The wonderful weather blog, Capital Weather Gang, posted this article last month about the warnings associated with the storm as it swept towards Washington.

“A common theme that emerged from talking to emergency managers, media, and the public was that although they received the warnings, they were surprised by the intensity of the winds,” the report says.

This was the case, even as stern, kind of scary warnings were issued:

For the part of the NWS office serving Washington, D.C. in Sterling, Va., the assessment highlights its use of compelling language as a best practice in conveying the storm threat. It calls special attention to its special weather statement issued at 9:35 p.m. warning “extremely dangerous thunderstorms” would affect the area. This statement also mentioned the storm’s history of producing damaging winds, and concluded by stating “this is a particularly dangerous situation.”

So we used language intended to scare, and it didn’t work. People were still taken by surprise. Still not ready.

This is problematic because there’s not much more we can do in this course. If we follow this line of thinking, our warnings need to be bigger, badder, more scary. It’s a zero-sum game where we need people to be overcome with fear in order to act. And frankly? Research has shown this doesn’t help for two reasons. The first is kind of obvious: fatigue. If we go around screaming about the end of the world ten times a year, people tend to stop listening, especially as our warnings generally cover counties and regions and people are concerned about their backyard and roof. Disconnect between the warning and what I see with my own eyes equals crying wolf.

The second is less obvious and much more dangerous. It’s called fatalism. People who are fatalistic about emergencies and disasters (traditionally minority populations) don’t think they’re going to die from a particular disaster, but instead feel that the inevitable is going to happen one way or the other, so why prepare? If we tell people that you a storm will be devastating, how can they even cope with that? How can they respond? This is a huge danger, and one that our traditional emergency managers and risk communicators don’t usually consider.

So, what can we do about it? Frankly? I’m not sure. I haven’t the foggiest. Do you have any suggestions?

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