The Ever-Expanding Disaster Warning

There’s been a trend in the last four years or so by emergency managers, especially at the federal level, to get more descriptive in their language surrounding impending disasters. We’ve seen language warning folks that they will die if they stay in the path of incoming weather. We’ve had Governor Chris Christie telling people to get the hell off of the beach. We’ve threatened, we’ve cajoled.

And anecdotally, there’s been some movement. People have, to some extent, listened to these exhortations. But not everyone. And, more interestingly, not during every storm.

Take, for example, the derecho that swept through the Mid-Atlantic last year. The wonderful weather blog, Capital Weather Gang, posted this article last month about the warnings associated with the storm as it swept towards Washington.

“A common theme that emerged from talking to emergency managers, media, and the public was that although they received the warnings, they were surprised by the intensity of the winds,” the report says.

This was the case, even as stern, kind of scary warnings were issued:

For the part of the NWS office serving Washington, D.C. in Sterling, Va., the assessment highlights its use of compelling language as a best practice in conveying the storm threat. It calls special attention to its special weather statement issued at 9:35 p.m. warning “extremely dangerous thunderstorms” would affect the area. This statement also mentioned the storm’s history of producing damaging winds, and concluded by stating “this is a particularly dangerous situation.”

So we used language intended to scare, and it didn’t work. People were still taken by surprise. Still not ready.

This is problematic because there’s not much more we can do in this course. If we follow this line of thinking, our warnings need to be bigger, badder, more scary. It’s a zero-sum game where we need people to be overcome with fear in order to act. And frankly? Research has shown this doesn’t help for two reasons. The first is kind of obvious: fatigue. If we go around screaming about the end of the world ten times a year, people tend to stop listening, especially as our warnings generally cover counties and regions and people are concerned about their backyard and roof. Disconnect between the warning and what I see with my own eyes equals crying wolf.

The second is less obvious and much more dangerous. It’s called fatalism. People who are fatalistic about emergencies and disasters (traditionally minority populations) don’t think they’re going to die from a particular disaster, but instead feel that the inevitable is going to happen one way or the other, so why prepare? If we tell people that you a storm will be devastating, how can they even cope with that? How can they respond? This is a huge danger, and one that our traditional emergency managers and risk communicators don’t usually consider.

So, what can we do about it? Frankly? I’m not sure. I haven’t the foggiest. Do you have any suggestions?


5 thoughts on “The Ever-Expanding Disaster Warning”

  1. Great food for thought … I’ve always said that public alerting and warnings need to be direct and clear. Focus on “the me and my family” … A solution perhaps, would be for messaging to focus on the collective … from the family unit (a single person and her/his dog … to a large clan), building association, neighbourhood, town … we know that people care for one another during emergencies … a network of trust, supported by socially convergent tools (social media + mobile tech), could be brought to bear in the alerting and warning process … just a thought …

    1. That’s a great way to handle this subject, Patrice. It’s smart because it takes into account your individual publics. Highlighting the potential benefits of mobile, too, is a huge thing. One I think we haven’t yet been able to fully grasp or exploit.

  2. Jim, important topic and glad to see you addressing it. Very relevant for public health communications. I was speaking at a conference in DC a couple of years ago and one of the speakers from a major federal agency presented on this topic. He was promoting the idea of very strong language in warnings. He used as an example an evacuation order that said “Evacuate or you will die.” Truth is, in that event a number of people didn’t and as I recall, 50 did die. But a lot more did not. There is a danger here. Too often in storms for example we see the news media and officials forecasting severity that doesn’t prove to be accurate (or overstating as in the “you will die” message). That is crying “wolf” and like in Aesop’s fable, if you cry wolf too often, when the wolf actually comes people will get eaten. Predicting dire results is very tricky–not enough and you are blamed, too much and you are blamed for fear-mongering. I’m convinced that the best way is for officials to use plain language to say exactly what they know, tell people it is possible that it will be less or more severe than what they say, appeal to their good sense and leave it at that. There are a lot of irrational people out there who think they know best or who are too macho to listen. Amanda Ripley’s book “the Unthinkable” has some great insights in this.

    1. That’s a great example, Gerald. It’s such a touchy subject because, as you note, fear-based messaging seems to be in vogue (one only needs to look at the trend in cigarette warning labels to see how far it’s gone), so advocating against it potentially riles the cool kids.

      I especially like your description of the hyper-local nature of experiences, especially in disaster weather scenarios. We see this a lot during tornadoes, where huge swaths of land will get warnings and never see more than a violent thunderstorm. Did the warning fail? Will folks be less likely to listen next time? (Between you and me, you’ll see where warnings have failed up and down the East Coast in hurricane season. People proudly count the number of hurricanes they’ve ridden out, and continue to flout warnings because, “nothing really bad happened last time.”

      Thanks again, Gerald!

  3. Hi Jim, I’m a long time reader, first time poster. I think when we’re crafting a warning message, it’s up to us to be as clear and consistent as possible about the possible danger. Some emergency managers/public officials may feel like they don’t want to cause a panic or over react, so they inadvertently downplay the seriousness. Research has shown that there are 3 criteria that need to be present for people to panic: (1) there must be a perception of entrapment, (2) there must be a sense of powerlessness, (3) there must be a feeling of isolation, such that people feel like they must depend on themselves. Very rarely are all three present in disaster situations. So if people aren’t going to panic so I would argue that we pick our spots carefully, and when the situation demands a strong message, we have a responsibility to play the “evacuate or risk death” card. Gerald is right in his post though, traditional media may overstate a situation which really doesn’t warrant overstatement, which can cause more headaches down the road. Perhaps the trick here is to position your agency as the go-to place for accurate forecasting, rather than a talking head on the 6 o’clock news. It’ll take a lot of leg work to reach out and make connections (via social media, face to face with community leaders, minority group leaders, etc) but the work will pay off when they listen to you for accurate warning/evacuation messaging.

    Which leads me to the message targets – a bit of a follow up to Patrice’s post. People are going to use every trick in the book to interpret the information in such a way as to play down the seriousness. We should target our messages to the people who are going to listen to what we have to say,…that means talking to women and children. These two groups, more than any other, are going to take warnings seriously, and actively push others to evacuate. How do we reach the kids? Partner with local schools and give in class presentations so when the kids hear an evacuation warning they know what to do. If everything works right, the parents will evacuate just to keep the kids quiet. Perfect! How do we reach the women in your community? I have no idea, but you live there so I’ll bet you know how. Targeting these two groups are your best bet for making you message count. I wonder if the “experienced” disaster survivors, who just won’t leave, are going to stay where they are no matter what we do? Hopefully the family unit that is leaving will pull them along….

    Now that we have our target, we have to remember to tell them what to do. In your last paragraph you asked how people were supposed to respond when we tell them them a storm will be devastating – we have to tell them how to respond. What action they should take, where they should go, and how long (for now) they should expect to leave. We all know this, but maybe sometimes these key messages get lost in the shuffle.

    I know it’s a long reply, but I think it’s an interesting problem worth talking about.

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