Thursday, May 3, 2012

What would it take to be truly "Weather Ready" as a nation?

Having recently returned from the Weather Ready Nation Workshop in Birmingham, AL, I heard many interesting and stimulating ideas generated there.  One that I noticed in particular was the question "Just how do we define 'Weather Ready', anyway?"  I already posted a blog about the utter meaninglessness of the term "StormReady" as it is applied by the NWS.  Here at this meeting, a gathering of very qualified specialists in meteorology and many of the diverse social sciences that was charged with developing multidisciplinary research objectives to help the nation become 'Weather Ready', defining our ultimate goal is not a frivolous question!

Mulling over this question, one thing becomes clear:  our workshop was aiming almost entirely toward institutional responses to help the nation be prepared for whatever the weather will throw at them.  [Hazardous weather is far from being limited to tornadoes - it includes winter storms, heat and drought, flash floods, hurricanes, nontornadic windstorms, hailstorms, and so on.]   We spent our workshop considering multidisciplinary research needed to help institutions (e.g., the NWS, FEMA, local governments, etc.) enhance their activities in response to the threat of hazardous weather.

How close are we now to being ready as a nation?  From where I sit, I'd say we're pretty far from being ready.  I'll expand on that shortly.  Having said this, I must acknowledge that although our existing institutional responses to the threat of hazardous weather are far from perfect, they are much more successful than a superficial examination might reveal.  We really don't know quantitatively (especially in $$ but also in terms of lives) the extent to which the existing systems have saved our nation from disasters.  What we do know is that weather disasters are happening more frequently, and it seems evident that our vulnerability to the weather has been increasing, not decreasing.  A growing population at risk from the weather is manifested in the dollar damage figures (which I admit are only a crude measure of the economic impact of weather).

The institutional responses can and should be reviewed and revised when we know precisely how to do the revisions so as to get the best results.  But I want here to point out a heretofore under-recognized component of our readiness for weather as a nation.  We continue to have large populations living in flood-prone areas, we have large populations living in coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes and even high-end extratropical storms, we have cities in arid locations that are increasingly struggling to find sources of fresh water, we have segments of our population in relatively warm regions who are unprepared for serious winter storms, heat waves claim lives every year, our homes are shoddily built, ready to be destroyed by the winds, and so on.  The element that is being overlooked, in my opinion, is the personal responsibility that all people living in the USA must bear if they are to prepared.

Witness the pointless "indomitable spirit" of rebuilding in areas devastated by floods.  This continues to happen not only because of the failure of our institutions to deny this foolish response, but because of the irresponsible, selfish failure of those who want to rebuild in the same location to recognize the message the weather is sending: living in this location is foolhardy!  If people want to live in such locations, despite the known dangers of doing so, they should not be allowed to insure their property, or their premiums should reflect the extreme risk to their property (and lives) that living there represents.  Developers in flood-vulnerable locations (such as "10-mile flats" in Norman, OK) need to disclose the risks to their customers or, preferably, not be allowed to develop those areas in the first place.

I've recently discussed the importance of home construction quality in the USA and how inadequate it is.  If the public demands enhanced structural integrity as opposed to fancy marble kitchen counter tops, then perhaps the construction industry will respond.  It's evident that the construction industry doesn't see it to be in their pecuniary interest to offer substantially stronger homes than they're now building.  Without a demand from the public, they'll oppose and lobby against more stringent building codes.  Homebuilders will respond to a demand from their customers, where they would not respond well to demands imposed on them from outside.  People need to understand that better-constructed homes are in their best interest if they want to be prepared for hazardous weather!

It seems to me we've seen a collective growth in the notion that the responsibility for protecting people from weather dangers is loaded entirely on institutions:  the NWS, media weather broadcasters, local government, etc.  Although these institutions certainly are responsible for some part of the effort to be prepared, all their work means nothing if people don't accept their share of the overall responsibility.

The media consistently have dropped the ball in public education, failing miserably in their obligations for public service.  The NWS has little or no capability for outreach to the public, although that's something that should be reconsidered.  For the present, therefore, the primary burden for this must be on the media.  They need to get their facts straight and begin to get an accurate message out to the public:  People must invest their own time and resources if they hope to be prepared for any hazardous weather that might happen in the future.  Throughout the year, the weather poses different potential hazards and the time for people to plan for these hazards is long before the threat becomes imminent!  Institutions should make information available to the public, but the public ultimately must think about and act upon that information for their personal preparations.  If the poisonous viewpoint persists that it's totally someone else's responsibility to protect the public from hazardous weather, we'll never achieve the status of a Weather Ready Nation!

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