Amanda Ripley has an interesting article in the current issue of Governing, “Run for Your Lives, Please”. Amanda examines the issue of how best to alert people in advance of a disasters. She points out that before Hurricane Ike made landfall the National Weather Service put out a rare “certain death” warning which got the attention most of those in the storm’s path. However, she notes there is some controversy on whether scaring people is the best warning method. In the article, Amanda outlines some of the consensus views on warnings among experts:
The warnings must be clear, unambiguous and consistent – even if the information on the ground is not. They need to come from many different channels (most people check with four or five sources before evacuating prior to a hurricane). And it is crucial that they be repeated – again and again. Most important, warnings need to be honest. The public does not tend to panic in the face of a crisis. To the contrary, most people become obedient when given clear direction – on burning airplanes and soon-to-be-flooded coastlines.
People also prefer that officials err on the side of caution, says John Sorensen, an evacuation expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. If storm warnings turn out to be wrong, people do not refuse to evacuate the next time around – provided officials explain why the first warning proved incorrect. “People are well aware of the fact that science is wishy-washy,” says [disaster expert Dennis] Mileti. “It’s the scientists who think they need to make it perfect.”
Most warnings are inadvertently written for emergency planners, not regular people – and that doesn’t help. For example, most people will never remember the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. Likewise, people have become familiar with the ranking of hurricanes on a scale from 1 to 5, and since Hurricane Ike was a Category 2, many people disregarded it. But that scale measures only wind – not storm surge, which is often far more dangerous.
The other challenge that exacerbates the human bias to linger is the ambient noise in our lives. “We have warnings from all directions – about fire, about drugs,” says Martin Lindstrom, author of “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.” “We put up a filter and say, ‘This won’t happen to us.’ So to communicate in an ordinary way will not work.” These filters can be penetrated, but only if emergency communications are written to work the way the human brain works.
This year, people in harm’s way will probably not hear the “certain death” warning, no matter how bad things get. After Hurricane Ike, the Weather Service decided to change its approach. “We had to be careful of not being overly deterministic,” says Walt Zaleski, warning coordination meteorologist at the Weather Service’s regional headquarters in Fort Worth. “There’s always a possibility you’re going to have somebody survive, and people will say, -Look! There you go! You told us we were going to die, and we didn’t!’ Then for the next storm, they won’t react.” Now, people living in high-risk areas will be warned only that they “may die” if they don’t evacuate.
Over the past 50 years, evacuations have, in fact, gotten much more effective. Forecasts are more accurate and timely. Warnings are more vivid, as are storm graphics. TV and new technology such as reverse 911 calls can distribute warnings much more efficiently – whatever the warnings may say. Those systems will be tested again. So far, 2009 is predicted to be a busier-than-average hurricane season, with 14 named storms. Death is not yet certain.