I often get messages asking why I don’t post more often. Since during storms I tend to get more followers, I thought I’d do a post for newcomers to describe what I do here and why I don’t jump on every track wobble or cloud in the Atlantic, especially invest areas. To paraphrase Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez, when you have to post, post, don’t talk …
This is a long rant to discuss a bit about the origin and philosophy of the blog, why the discussion of impacts you might see here aren’t as exciting or frequent as from other sources, and the posting schedule. So feel free to skip it.
This blog actually started in the 1990’s (!) as a way to discuss interesting satellite images and computer model data back when they weren’t as available as they are now (the original title was “SatBlog”). It got a lot of attention during the post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq invasions – back then (early 2000’s) it was much more geopolitics than natural hazards, as well as during the big storms in 2004-5 (Ivan, Katrina, etc). The hurricane posts got started to save time because a fair number of people wanted my advice, and doing that for even the few friends and family I have left got out of hand. The number started growing as it got passed around. It seems an increasing number of people tired of the hype and exaggeration from many if not most media sources, and just want the basic facts without the baggage. I would have thought there would be a niche for a media entity to do that, but it doesn’t fit with their business model: saying “nothing going on, check back in a few days” doesn’t do much for your click counts and ad revenues!
I’ve tried to end the blog a few times in recent years but then the phone rings and the emails start, so I’m assuming it is still needed. I’m glad it helps people out, but I really don’t enjoy it especially since, as is the case the last couple of years, I can’t post about some really interesting topics. It’s a lot of work, and public outreach and contact is very stressful for me. People have been quite kind in contributing money to cover the costs of WordPress and the extra computing resources devoted to it, but it’s still a bit of a loss and, given I rarely do commercial work any more, certainly not for advertising or “exposure”. You’ll notice I try hard not to use my personal name here – because it’s not about me, and I cringe whenever someone who does know me says “Thanks, <name>” in a post. I know they are being nice, but it makes me queasy. I’m not hiding, or ducking responsibility for anything controversial or wrong (not that there have ever been inaccurate predictions 😛 ), it’s just not about me – it’s about the data. Unfortunately in today’s society things are often made about personality when they shouldn’t be.
So, why is the take here different from, say, your local TV weathercaster? What follows isn’t a criticism, if you want to know what the weather is going to be next Wednesday and it’s not going to be a catastrophe of some kind, they know better than I do. I know how to do a daily forecast and have access to all of the data to do one anywhere in the world, but I just don’t do it routinely.
But the other side of it is the average local TV meteorologist might, if they are “lucky,” get to do ten or twelve landfalls within their viewing area in their entire career. It’s exciting, and a chance to shine. I often work more than a dozen landfalls in a typical year, and every day is spent in crisis management. I’m working three major events right now (down from five last week, one of which was Idalia and ran over my office). So I have a different level of experience, perspective, and attitude, towards these storms. Another factor is that they really need you to stay engaged – their jobs literally depend on it. Yes, most of them do care about doing things right and are trying to do a good job, and feel they have a sense of obligation with respect to public safety, but they also want you watching them and some are pretty aggressive about it. Public engagement and outreach is a big part of their job. So there is an inherent, sometimes subtle, conflict of interest., In a few cases they develop a “proprietary” interest in making sure they are the dominant local voice heard, and that sometimes causes friction.
Another huge factor, especially when comparing my commentary with local emergency managers and how the “message” gets amplified through the media is that I was trained by the last of the old Cold War guys, back when it was known as “Civil Defense.” That generation mostly came from a military background with experience in Vietnam, Korea, and a few even the Second World War. They had a very different attitude towards the general public than the current generation of emergency managers (EMA) who largely come out of Law Enforcement (LEO) and are trained by FEMA, which has evolved considerably in approach post 9/11 when it came under the Department of Homeland Security.
The Civil Defense guys didn’t get excited about hurricanes – after all, when your definition of a bad day is a Megaton yield thermonuclear bomb going off in your backyard, a hurricane isn’t a big deal 😮 . They also saw the civilian population (which in their mind included police, fire, and local political authorities) as an asset to be mobilized. LEO’s tend to view the local population, especially anyone not part of government, as a “civilian” and a problem to be managed rather than an asset to be put to work. Thus we get self-defeating policies like laws that literally prohibit residents from cleaning up public roads after a storm. Yes there are risks (don’t mess with power lines that might be entangled, watch for rollover, etc), but also big benefits from having an informed and capable public be active participants as opposed to passive bystanders.
Prior to the late 1990’s, the prevailing attitude in emergency management towards hurricanes was “evacuate from water, shelter from wind.” That made a lot of sense – wind causes very few fatalities, almost all deaths are due to rising water. The significant exception, mobile homes and informal housing, is best dealt with locally. Today local authorities seem more concerned about potential liability, control, and other secondary issues than a rapid recovery. They want to get everyone out of the way until services can be restored, roads cleared, etc. That attitude makes sense if you see the population as unable to fend for themselves and requiring a paternal attitude, but to me it delays recovery and sells short the average American, who historically rises to whatever challenges are placed before them (feel free to wave a flag, stand, and sing the national anthem here 😛 ). I agree totally with the need to protect the vulnerable, but feel the balance has slipped too far towards “get people out of the way.” We confuse “inconvenient,” with “hazardous,” much less “dangerous,” and the need to have a nuanced response at each level of threat.
EMA’s will say “we always err on the side of saving lives.” Well, that’s a nice slogan, but it’s just not true, and believing it is somewhat self-delusional and can lead to bad decisions. When I taught classes to EMA’s in the 90’s and 2000’s (hint), I always made the point that no matter what you did you were going to kill people. Don’t evacuate? Storm hits and people may die. Evacuate? People will die from accidents, stress (especially the elderly and those with medical issues), etc. – much less if you evacuate in the wrong direction and into the path of the storm, a serious problem for Florida as well as coastal Georgia with our “back door” events. So your decision has to be based on which action is likely to kill the least number of people. Harsh? Maybe, but at the margins (tropical storms, Cat 1, in some situations up to low end Cat 2) an evacuation can harm more people than sheltering in place.
So, who’s “right” or “best to follow”? NHC and your local emergency managers (understanding their messages are often distorted when passed through the filter of the media). In the above discussion I’m definitely not implying here to ignore your local emergency managers. They have a very difficult job and are weighing a lot of different factors, and the majority of them are pretty good. In general their advice will be the best for the vast majority of people. In fact you will rarely encounter contradictory advice here, only a difference in tone and with more nuance as to the “most likely” as opposed to “bad or worst case.” Where there are substantive differences between what I write here and their guidance, it is typically due to a political issue or other non-threat related factor.
There is also a legal aspect with respect to evacuations and emergency orders and you need to understand your specific local laws. EMA’s have a point that people staying in truly dangerous conditions run the risk of putting others at risk, especially police and rescue services should you get yourself in trouble. That said, my feeling is the bias has moved too far towards taking disruptive actions in marginal cases, and that causes more harm than good given the risks. But the default action is to follow your local EMA advice unless you have a carefully arrived at reason (not just resentment of authority!) not to do so.
You have to accept personal responsibility in these things, and evaluate your own situation with respect to your risks, vulnerabilities, and skills. But to do that takes good information and common sense. And in the current media environment, good information is hard to come by for the non-specialist.
How should you stay informed about hurricanes (and other severe weather)? For raw information your primary source should be the National Hurricane Center and your local National Weather Service office. NHC is of course at https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/ . I strongly suggest you go to https://www.weather.gov/, click on your location on the national map, then bookmark that page. Then get a weather radio (the Midland radios are inexpensive, available at Amazon or WalMart – I have one in the office and one in the house). I really don’t like apps, or relying on cell phone alerts. Those networks have delays, and can and do regularly fail. Don’t bet your life on an app. And that’s not even getting in to the privacy and marketing aspects of various “free” apps that media outlets provide. If you like them, fine, but realize their limitations and potential gotchas (link) before recommending them to others. For tornadoes, sirens are designed to warn people outside, and have lots of limitations as well. Commercial radio alerts from the Emergency Broadcastin g System are also effective if you are fortunate enough to have a local Metal station or your local NPR if there is no metal and, I suppose, you could listen to classic rock, rap, or, in desperation news talk and if you are one of “them”, even country. Again, by far your best bet is a properly configured weather radio.
As for my posting schedule, generally if there isn’t an event or threat somewhere I post every couple of days or once a week or so. When there is a threat of landfall somewhere in the world that goes to daily, usually in the morning before 8am, and twice a day when conditions warrant, usually 6-7 am, and again in early afternoon when updated model, satellite, and aircraft data is available. I’m not going to post every time there is an updated official forecast or bulletin unless it substantively changes the threat assessment itself or I get the sense people are scared. If you want to obsess over every wobble and debate every cloud over water, this isn’t the place – this isn’t a tropical meteorology blog although it devolves to that sometimes. Generally, I don’t post or comment about a system until it has an ATCF ID (is a formal invest area) and/or is a threat to land and the monitoring meteorological center (such as NHC) has the “magic words” in their outlooks: ‘Interests <somewhere> should <do something>’. I strongly advise you to have the same attitude – unless you just like watching tropical meteorology, and it doesn’t cause you stress, don’t worry about it until it’s time to worry about it. We are rarely caught off guard these days. Otherwise, I only comment on invest areas if they are interesting in some way.
The bottom line is that my area of research and work is impacts – what the event is going to do to human populations and infrastructure (be it storm, earthquake, or something else), and the economic impacts of the event. That is a very different thing than the media, or EMA’s with warnings and protecting people, both of which have political and sociological factors beyond what the actual impact of the event is going to be, although ideally the actual projected impacts are driving those decisions. EMA’s and the Hurricane Center never want to be wrong on the “low” side because they are (rightly) more afraid of not warning than over warning. Unfortunately the vast majority of media outlets have economic concerns that tends to drive their commentary towards exaggeration. Unfortunately those biases have consequences in that when people see “it wasn’t that bad” they discount the next warning. That’s why I often say things like “the likely impact will only be a tropical storm, but because a hurricane is possible NHC is right to raise warnings, and you should act accordingly.”
I’ve been told that “dilutes the message” but I think you’re adult enough to understand the difference between what might happen and what is likely to happen, and protect yourself from the “might” knowing that, well, it might not happen. I’m not going to try to second guess your common sense and scare you in to doing the right thing. In my view that means you will be more likely to listen next time. It’s also less stressful for most people, since what might happen in a bad case usually doesn’t.
So that’s the background and philosophy. Hopefully this wall-o-words was somewhat useful background and perspective as to what goes on here and why.