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!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A magic bullet for tornado warnings?

After the tragic tornado season of 2011, with nearly 600 fatalities, it's natural for some agonized re-appraisal to go on.  Some blame themselves, some blame others. But the "blame game" is pointless.  How do we explain all those fatalities, despite the fact that the National Weather Service (NWS) and the so-called Integrated Warning System (that includes media broadcasters and emergency managers, as well as storm spotters and NWS forecasters) did a pretty good job with having tornado warnings out for the deadly tornadoes?

Of late, it's become fashionable to discuss the issue of the efficacy of warnings in terms of the need to do social science-oriented research.  In fact, I've just returned from the Weather Ready Nation Workshop in Birmingham, AL where the main goal was to define research objectives for a multidisciplinary approach to the challenge posed by large death tolls in spite of reasonably timely and accurate warnings.  Hopefully, the outcome of this workshop will be a major step forward in getting the needed multidisciplinary research done.

For decades, the NWS has been focused, naturally enough, on the weather!  During most of my career, most forecasters operated under the notion that they have a forecasting task to accomplish that basically ends when they push the "send" button on their computers and their forecast products (including tornado warnings) leave the office (mostly electronically).  They've not considered it their responsibility to understand what happens when it leaves the NWS office - and it shouldn't be their job.  Weather forecasting is tough enough!  My long-time friend and colleague, retired NWS operational forecaster Alan R. Moller made me aware of the inadequacy of this situation:  even a perfect forecast is useless if the forecast information:
  • Fails to reach its intended users
  • Is not understood by the intended users
  • Is not believed by the intended users
  • Is of no value in helping intended users to make critical decisions
For the last year, there's been a lot of angst over the warning process.  What can we do to make them more effective?  What can we do to prevent any of the foregoing stumbling blocks along the path to protecting the lives of those unlucky enough to be in the path of tornadoes?  To a considerable degree, solutions to the problems depend on information about the users we presently don't have, and have only begun to obtain.  Weather forecasters aren't qualified to do the research needed for this - they know meteorology, not social science.  Partnerships between the meteorologists and the social sciences must develop as a result of mutual interest in answering the as-yet unanswered questions about what happens when the forecasters push "send".

I've long been an advocate on behalf of this research and I continue to believe we need those answers before we start meddling with the warning process.  No doubt in reaction to all the angst, the NWS recently initiated a public "experiment" in tiered warningsThis is an ill-advised, ill-designed experiment. It "recycles" some old terminology and represents nothing particularly new. Its experimental design isn't founded on new understanding of how the public receives, understands, and uses warnings to make decisions. Moreover, it shouldn't have been carried out in a "public" mode. The ability to issue skillful tiered warnings should have been tested in a non-public, "testbed" mode before this project was undertaken - the HWT at the Norman Weather Center would have been an ideal venue for a series of internal experiments establishing the extent of forecast skill before going public. And the physical and social scientists should have been given the opportunity to review this experiment and offer recommendations before the ill-advised decision to go ahead with this was ever made.

Having said all this, I now want to throw  some cold water onto the entropy generated by all this anxiety over the warnings.  First, in my opinion, there's no magic bullet that will transform the existing warnings into something where all the challenges described above are overcome.

Is it our goal to turn the public into automatons who shuffle off like zombies to shelter every time we issue a warning?  Personally, I don't think so.  We have no business telling our forecast users what to do.  The meteorologists need to issue their warnings, but the users must make their decisions about what to do with our weather information on the basis of their own complex needs, which vary from one user to the next.  This diverse set of user needs can't be accounted for in NWS warnings and so I'm opposed to such things as call-to-action statements.  If people need to know what to do in specific situations, the time to learn that was before the threat ever materialized, not in the last few minutes before a tornado strikes.

Although the existing warning system is far from perfect, its impact on life-saving over the years has been dramatic.  I have no doubt that thousands of lives have been saved by the existing imperfect warning system.  Before we start tinkering with the warnings, we need to be as certain as possible that any proposed changes won't result in even less effective warnings than they are now!  First of all, do no harm!!

Second, it's obvious to me that mere wording changes aren't likely to have any lasting impact on the warnings.  We have to reconsider the whole process, end-to-end (to use a phrase that once was popular in NWS management circles), and make changes only on the basis of clear and compelling new findings about the warning process.  Wordsmithing is of little or no value.

Third, the existing warnings do their best with respect to the tornadoes that are most likely to take lives:  long-track violent tornadoes.  We're already doing pretty well there and the rest of the tornadoes only account for a small fraction of the fatalities.  When large, violent, long-track tornadoes hit populated areas, people will be killed.  Most of the time, tornadoes miss population concentrations here in the USA.  A comprehensive explanation for the massive death tolls in 2011 has yet to be offered, and likely involves some complex interactions among factors leading to casualties, but it's my belief that the primary "explanation" is that our luck ran out in 2011.  The threat has been there all along, but we were mostly unlucky in 2011, whereas we've mostly been lucky in the preceding decades.  This has been characteristic of tornado fatalities over time - sporadic disasters decades apart, with much lesser events dominating in between.   We need to review and consider who is being killed in deadly tornadoes and the reasons for their deaths.  I don't believe the "answer" to preventing fatalities is longer warning lead times by tornado forecasters.  As noted, we're already doing a pretty good job with most of the really deadly tornadoes, paradoxically.