Hurricane speak: Leaders seek to save lives by shifting tropical storm language
“It’s just a Category 1.” Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, flinches every time he hears that knowing that Category 1 hurricanes were directly responsible for 175 deaths and $103 billion worth of damage in the last 10 years.
Most of those deaths Graham believes could have been avoided if the public had been better educated about the power of tropical storms.
Changing the public’s assumptions on hurricane threats is an uphill battle Graham is determined to win by changing the way meteorologists and state leaders talk about incoming storms.
“When we talk about a 1 percent chance of floods, that doesn’t mean much to the average person,” Graham said during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference earlier in May. “But, if you change the phrasing, a 1 percent chance means a 1 percent chance for me, a 1 percent chance for you and all of us, and suddenly you’re looking at a 26 percent chance of a flood, flooding your 30 year mortgage. Think that’ll grab their attention?”
Graham and the NHC are exploring social sciences to understand the best way of communicating the full threat of an incoming storm to the general population.
Part of the problem lies in what residents have already lived through.
“Public perception of risk is based on a different experience. Every time we get a new experience it reshapes our perception of hurricanes,” Graham said.
Living through multiple storms without seeing much damage, injuries or death creates skepticism and a wall of disconnect between what meteorologists are saying and what homeowners may be thinking.
“Even when a governor says, ‘Get out now,’ some decide to stay for a wide swath of reasons,” said Laurence Barton, a professor and expert in crisis management and threat assessment at the University of Central Florida. “It’s difficult for informed scientists to motivate when people have the perceived right to put their life at risk.”
After interviewing 80 people in hurricane-effected states, Barton found the most common reason people stay in an evacuation zone is based on economics.
Persons with high net worth stayed to protect their home from looters, while those on the other end of the spectrum lacked the financial means to leave the area.
The second common denominator is a lack of knowledge.
“I’ve seen what happens when public officials are mouthing the words regarding a storm threat, but their body language shows that they’re going through motions or not taking it seriously. The public gets that,” said Craig Fugate, former head of FEMA. “You need to sell the risk to people, or they’ll think, it’s not that bad.”
Fugate’s work in FEMA involved looking at many indicators to get an idea of how severe a storm might be, including predictions of wind, storm surge, inland flooding and tornadoes. One of the more creative indicators he observed was if a Waffle House restaurant was still open, as the restaurant chain is known for being open 24 hours a day.
The “Waffle House Index” was briefly used as an informal metric in gauging a storm’s severity or the lasting damage in an area during Fugate’s time as FEMA administrator.
If Waffle House closes its doors, that’s a bad sign and considered a red light, Fugate said.
“If they’re open, with a partial menu, then that’s a yellow,” he said.
While other indicators can be extremely helpful in painting a picture of how serious a tropical system is, meteorologists are trying to make adjustments on their end of how information is disseminated.
Most people who have watched the projections for an incoming tropical storm have seen the cone graphic detailing the probable path of a system, but what viewers may not realize is areas outside of the cone can suffer massively, said Michael Brennan, branch chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the NHC.
“As our technology has advanced we’ve been able to create a smaller cone and more accurate projection, but some users of that information think that’s the only area of impact. That’s not the case,” he said. “There’s still high wind and storm surges affecting areas outside of the cone.”
A popular misconception the NHC has tried to combat is that only coastal communities are affected by storm surges. However, the highest storm surges seen during Hurricane Florence in North Carolina were 100 miles inland where water traveled up rivers.
“A lot people haven’t lived through the worst conditions possible post hurricane,” Brennan said. “They need to open their minds to what’s possible.”
To communicate the significance of surges, NHC started producing storm surge watches and warnings in 2017 detailing the areas that will be affected outside of a projected cone track.
NHC surveys found that most are under the impression that hurricane force winds are the deadliest part of a storm, when in actuality data shows that water is a deadlier killer.
About 90 percent of deaths were water related in the 2017-2018 hurricane seasons, according to the NHC.
“Fresh water flooding doesn’t get as much attention as it should,” Brennan said. “Both storm surges, and inland flooding kill way more than wind does.”
Graham sees these as avoidable deaths.
During the Governor’s Hurricane Conference, Graham pointed to a chart depicting the percentage rates of people likely to leave after the announcement of an incoming storm.
About 22 percent of people are considered “diehards” and will not evacuate, while 21 percent make up the portion of folks likely to be the first people out.
“There’s a portion of people in between those two groups, that I believe can be reached and persuaded to leave,” Graham said. “I’ll never give up on those middle people and as long as I’m director we’re going to try and save lives.”