Boy, do I get a kick out of that name. It was a hurricane, which everyone understands. Big storm, spins around, lots of wind (the rest of the elements, like storm surge, aren’t reported). But then it wasn’t a hurricane. It was a Superstorm! … and it was post-tropical … and … there were storm surge warnings issued … and high wind advisories … and, wait, what the hell just happened?
According to the National Weather Service, the energy source of the storm changed:
The primary difference between a tropical cyclone and a wintertime cyclone is the energy source. Tropical cyclones extract heat from the ocean and grow by releasing that heat in the atmosphere near the storm center. Wintertime cyclones […], on the other hand, get most of their energy from temperature contrasts in the atmosphere, and this energy gets distributed over larger areas.
Okay. Got it? I’m sure that clarification really helped the folks in the path of the storm understand the potential for record-breaking storm surge, hurricane-force winds and massive coastal flooding, don’t you?
In all fairness, the decision to not issue Hurricane Watches or Warnings was made with a specific rationale in place:
Rick Knabb, the director of the NHC, told reporters that the decision was made in order to minimize confusion in the event that Sandy was reclassified as a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall, which would have required that all hurricane warnings be canceled, and other warnings be issued instead.
Because I’m sure we can all agree that making sure that following the National Hurricane Center’s internal rules is of primary importance in the face of Sandy. The NWS has, rightfully I think, been dragged across the coals for this decision by the media and weatherfolks up and down the east coast. I have no idea if this naming/warning disaster had any effect on people’s evacuations, and I don’t think you could ever prove that one way or the other, so I’m very strongly not making that implication. But in a situation like this, don’t you think you’d want to try avoid taking any chances with misinterpretation?
To make matters worse, this isn’t the only ongoing criticism of NWS terminology. It seems that every spring and early summer, there are articles published all across the media explaining–and complaining–about the difference between watches and warnings. In 2011, the Washington Post’s phenomenal Capital Weather Gang published this great blog post calling for a new naming convention because research had shown that the majority of people, many of whom live directly in the path of weather where the difference between the two could mean life or death, don’t understand the difference.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, to me, this is a subject matter expert problem. While the thrust of this post is toward the NWS (who, frankly, perform a Herculean effort every day [ps, go NWS-Cherry Hill!]), this is a problem amongst all highly-specialized experts. Public health is just as guilty (don’t even get me started on swine flu vs H1N1 vs Influenza A (H1N1) swine variant). Structural engineers, geologists, scientists, all of them.
They are exceedingly good at what they do, and find beauty in the sublime bits of a disaster. Not because they are impressed with the damage wrought, but because they love what they do and are impressed by outliers. Just like when we communicators watch PR disaster videos over and over.
What they need is communicators’ help. It is incumbent upon us to take that nerd-speak and translate it into something that will promote action–NOW–amongst the public. Some PR person should have stood up and said, to hell with your rules, people know and fear Hurricane Warnings; they will move if we say it’s a hurricane, we should call it a hurricane.
If you’re that person, expect pushback. Your subject matter experts understand all of the bits and bobs and particulars that caused them to come to their decision, and none of it is wrong. But no one without their years of dedication, specialization and training will understand the nuance. It’s your job to advocate for those souls. Not standing up and fighting for this is the same as your agency issuing an egregiously wrong statement. Misunderstood is the same as wrong.