Forthright Irma: A discussion of Hurricane Ambiguity.

It’s hard to get people to evacuate. Cara Cuite and Rebecca Morss–risk communication and hurricane experts–write about several factors that can cause people to ignore evacuation warnings. Things like: some people don’t like being told what to do; sometimes they judge fear-based messaging as “overblown” and disregard it; sometimes the cost and logistical nightmare of evacuating causes them to prefer to shelter-in-place. (Do read their article; it’s so interesting.)

But my favorite factor which causes people to ignore evacuation warnings is ambiguity. Ambiguity is systemic and unavoidable and–worse–humans are terrible at managing it. Some individuals and cultures are better at tolerating uncertainty than others (as Hofstede points out), but generally humans don’t like to take action when they can’t predict the outcome.

This trait can influence Emergency Managers’ work in two ways: 1. Storm prediction is inherently ambiguous which makes our jobs harder and 2. Ambiguity from authorities causes people to hesitate putting them in danger.

1. Storm prediction is ambiguous

Below is a comparison of American (blue) and European (red) computer models predicting the path of Hurricane Irma. The darkest lines are the averages. (Thanks to the Washington Post for this picture and many other excellent ones.) As you can see, there is a limit to how finely science can predict a hurricane’s progress. Imagine you’re the governor of Florida. Do you evacuate Jacksonville?

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Group of simulations from American (blue) and European (red) computer models from Friday night [9/8/17]. Each color strand represents a different model simulation with slight tweaks to initial conditions. Note that the strands are clustered together where the forecast track is most confident but they diverge where the course of the storm is less certain. The bold red line is the average of all of the European model simulations, while the blue is the average of all the American model simulations.(StormVistaWxModels.com)
Fortunately for the real Governor of Florida, storm prediction has vastly improved since the deadliest storm in American history–“The Galveston Hurricane of 1900″ (This was before they started naming storms). During the 1900s, American meteorologists had a poor understanding of how storms played in the ocean. Though the more experienced Cuban meteorologists warned of an incoming hurricane, the message was ignored and no one evacuated. Surging waters killed 8,000 of the 37,789 residents or about 20% of the population.

After World War II, “the U.S. still used pretty simple forecasting tools. Airplanes took rough rides into these tempests, found the storm’s center, and then returned every six hours to find the center once again,” reports Popular Science. The U.S. launched it’s first weather satellite in 1960 and the first satellite images were broadcast on television in the 1970s.

The last decade or so has seen even greater improvements of predictions through better satellite technology and computer modeling. The Natural Hazards Review estimates that weather satellites have prevented up to 90% of the deaths that would have occurred had meteorologists not had satellites available. NOAA reports that their errors in storm tracking has dropped by 50% in the last 15 years while in the last 5 years, NOAA has improved it’s notice-giving by 12 hours. Public officials now have 36 hours of advance notice. If it hadn’t been for these improvements, weather experts estimate 10,000-20,000 people killed in Hurricane Katrina, instead of the actual 1,200 people. Because of storm tracking, only 15% of New Orleans’ population was still in the city.

The bad news is that there is still ambiguity to storm tracking–for instance, scientists still have a hard time judging the intensity of a storm. The good news is, the ambiguity is way less than it was before.

2. Ambiguity from authorities can cause inaction.

The ambiguity from storm prediction can creep into the language used by public leaders which directly causes people to hesitate to take action or to disregard warnings. Studies show that people use multiple sources of information when trying to make a decision and that people are more likely to take the action when a) sources agree and b) information is consistent over time.

Let’s compare the evacuation orders from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Evacuation messaging for Hurricane Irma was consistent and forceful and Florida evacuated smoothly. On the other hand, Texas officials have been criticized by some for their weak and inconsistent evacuation directions.

Before Hurricane Harvey, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told residents to shelter-in-place. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbot said, “If you have the ability to evacuate and go someplace else for a little while, that would be good.” This mismatch in message caused many residents to stay put. In Mayor Turner’s defense, he was expecting flooding instead of high winds and driving in flooded streets is far more dangerous than staying in your house. The two public leaders judged the ambiguous weather data differently from their different vantage points.

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Pic courtesy of NPR

Additionally, Gov. Abbot’s “evacuation order” seems weak. The “If you can…that would be good,” sounds like a suggestion on par with “If you could get me butter at the store, that would be good.” At first, I was frustrated because I assumed Gov. Abbot was just a bad public speaker. “Do you want people to evacuate or not?!” I yelled at the TV. (Please forgive me, Mr. Governor.) But after reflection, I think his message was ambiguous because it had to be. Here are the facts I imagine are in Abbott’s mind: 1. I want you to evacuate. 2. Evacuation causes traffic jams. We all remember the horror of the 2007 evacuation from Hurricane Rita–the largest evacuation on record. 3. Smart people are telling me that this could just be rain, in which case I don’t want millions of people flooded and drowning on the highways. 4. If I explicitly call for voluntary evacuation, people might evacuate from safe areas blocking the road for people trying to evacuate from dangerous areas. Poor Gov. Abbot. Not only is there ambiguity arising from the limitations of science and from different vantage points, but there is ambiguity in messaging because of conflicting motivations.

Fortunately, evacuations for Hurricane Irma went smoothly. We could make the argument, as Alan Bernstein, spokesperson for Houston Mayor Turner does, that this was due to Irma’s certainty. He said to NPR, “Irma is totally different. It is forecast for a direct hit on populous areas, bringing highly destructive winds and perhaps heavy coastal destruction. That was not the case here, and Mayor Turner would not second-guess an evacuation order for Florida.”

 

All I can say is: Thank God for better storm tracking.

Further Reading

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Hope Dogs in the EOC: Comfort in times of crisis

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EMScholar Exercises

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

You know immediately when they arrive because the whole room gravitates toward their wake.

“Did you see the Hope Dogs?” someone asks me.

“What are Hope Dogs?” I ask heading toward a growing crowd in a corner. Oscar and Pickles are therapy dogs who work for the non-profit organization Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (Hope AACR). They are part of an elite team that not only has animal-assisted therapy certification and experience but are also screened for suitability in a crisis response environment. Teams receive extensive training in Incident Command System (a standardized way we organize crisis response), first aid/CPR, emotional first aid, crisis communication, and special stress management techniques for work in the field along side first responders.

Founded in September 2001, Hope Dogs provided emotional support victims at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. Hope Dogs are called out nationally to attend policeman memorials, Operation Purple camps (for military kids), and natural disasters. They work closely in conjunction with FEMA and the Red Cross and were happy to practice with us at Cascadia Rising.

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Molly Fischer (right) with Oscar and Raquel Lackey (left) with Pickles

Molly Fischer sits comfortably on the floor with a gentle Oscar. He gives me soulful eyes until I pat him. Hope Dogs first began as emotional support for victims of natural disasters but gradually, the organization began to see a need to support the responders themselves. Fischer started working with FEMA staff during the 2014 Oso, Washington landslide. “It’s such a rewarding thing when you walk into a building where everything is so tense [like that]” she says, “When we walk into a room, it’s all smiles.” She invites another person to pet Oscar. “Snohomish [county] was the smoothest-operating EOC because of the dogs” she says proudly. They were able to relax and focus on the response. “Dogs are amazing at that.”

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Pickles and another Hope Dog look across the valley to the Oso landslide. Pic courtesy of Cal EOC.

Pickles and handler Raquel Lackey join us. They were at Oso too a day after the landslide while search and rescue were still happening. She describes how exhausting it was for the dogs to sponge up all that emotional stress. They need a break every other day and then a longer break after about three weeks. They never use dogs under 2 years old because it can be too stressful for the puppies and they only use dogs who are highly tolerant of new things and stressed people. After, Oso, she took the dogs to the beach for a couple days were there was no one around.

 

Still… she says, they can get depressed if they don’t work for a while.
“How do you know when it’s time to go back to work?” I ask
“They’ll tell you. This one,” she nudges a tail-wagging Pickles, “will approach people on the street for pets” she laughs.

I wonder aloud why the dogs need practice when they seem to be such naturals. “Our minds know this is an exercise but our bodies don’t” Fischer tells me. Lackey nods. “You’ll notice the dogs can identify who’s the most stressed.” Oscar puts his head in someone’s lap. Both he and the person seem grateful for the head scratches.

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If you’d like to support these intrepid therapy dogs and the volunteers who give up their time to support first responders and victims, do visit their page to see all the different ways you can help.

 

A (Theoretical) Day in the Life of the EOC

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This is a fictionalized account of a day in the State Emergency Operation’s Center during a pretend earthquake/tsunami disaster. This account is not real and should not be panicked about. For background information, please do see our previous blogs about the Cascadia Rising Exercise, 2016.

While I was participating in the exercise, I found it difficult to describe the work happening around me to friends. There are so many little pieces to keep track of and so many vague abbreviations and tasks to do. I thought a fictionalized “day in the life” might be both helpful and fun. This is a pretend day two when the responders have a good sense of the tasks before them, but still have a lot to do. Federal agents are on the scene and communications have been re-established so work is in full swing. I chose this day so that you can see the very wide variety and scope of problems that the State EOC had to deal with and the many different people helping. The meeting schedule is taken from several real meeting schedules that Cascadia Rising used though some things were edited for clarity and for drama. 


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The State EOC floor (SEOC)

7:30 am: Shift Change Briefing. All state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) staff attend a meeting for getting updated on the disaster. Editor’s Note: For the Cascadia Rising Exercise, the night shift was “notional” which means it only existed on paper. Controllers delivered “injects” or pre-conceived, pretend-facts that the players have to respond to. 

Last night, there was an aftershock and several gas lines lit fires. Pierce county needs fire trucks and state EOC employees are working to see who can supply them. Maybe the Department of Natural Resources? How about the National Guard?

 

 

8:30 am: Unified Coordination Group (UCG) Objectives Meeting. “Review and identify incident objectives for the next operational period.” Planning staff from all levels and branches of the government meet to discuss tomorrows priorities while operations staff work on today’s priorities.

Today we’re working on search and rescue, fire suppression establishing shelters, and assessing the damage to “critical infrastructure” like hospitals and police stations. Tomorrow, we should work on road clearing, getting fuel to vehicles in the field, getting the power grid back up, and sending food and water to shelters. 

8:30 am: Command and General Staff Meeting:

The operations staff meet to discuss today’s priorities called “objectives”. (They were approved last night by the planning staff). The EOC supervisor briefs his Operations Chiefs and the Disaster Manager who will later need to liaise with the planning staff and politicians. Today, we’re working on search and rescue, mass care (medical care, housing, etc), damage assessment, fire suppression, road clearing, fuel line and power grid repairs, and body collection and identification. The operation’s staff are tracking more than 100 requests for help from the counties and tribes.

FEMA arrives.

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FEMA arrives with their own communications equipment.

9:00 am: State Emergency Management Declaration Meeting

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Disaster Manager and Deputy

The Disaster Manager and other officials meet to decide whether this emergency is bad enough to warrant an official Disaster Declaration request by the governor. It is. In fact, the President has anticipated this and is standing by to grant the request immediately. 

The EOC is relieved to hear that they have received a Presidential Disaster Declaration. Now they can easily receive Federal aid.

9:15 am: The Media Arrive: They want to know about the disaster declaration and the status of the response. They work closely with the SEOC to get important life-saving messages out to the people. Fun Fact: The media really did come into the SEOC during Cascadia Rising. The Governor did a pretend news briefing, and then the cameras came into the SEOC to interview the FEMA Region 10 Director and the Lead Controller about the exercise itself.

 

9:30 am: Fuel Task Force Meeting: How many lines are broken? How can we fix them?Who needs the fuel? How can we get them fuel for emergency use?

9:30 am: FEMA National Call: FEMA field agents meet with their national headquarters, military officials, and state officials via teleconferencing equipment. They compare notes and discuss resource requests. For instance, can the military let us use some helicopters for search and rescue operations, and some planes for fire suppression?

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FEMA coordinates with the military and Federal government to provide support to the state.

9:30 am: ESF 15 Local/State Coordination Call

Public Information Officers from FEMA, the state, the tribes, and counties, meet to discuss what to tell the public. 

People are beginning to ask what to do with the bodies they’ve discovered. 
What can we tell people about when power will be back up? 

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The State EOC floor listens to the local jurisdictions on speaker.

10:00 am: Tribal and Local Jurisdiction Conference Call

The conference call is piped in over the speakers onto the EOC floor. The EOC floor supervisor takes role call. Most of the counties have joined the call. One by one, they describe their needs and their own response activities. The King County emergency operation’s center had to move to their secondary site due to damage to their building. They give the group their new address and phone number. Klallam tribe has opened their casino and hotels as a shelter. Thurston county is stranded. Both Hwy 101 and the Nisqually bridge are damaged. The State asks the Army Corps of Engineers to see if they can fix the bridge and/or clear Hwy 101.

10:00 am: Critical Infrastructure Task Force

The task force members meet to update the incident map with damaged buildings, ports, and roads. They begin to prioritize needs. If we can fix some ports in Puget Sound, a navy vessel can bring supplies up from California. It might be faster than trying to clear enough roads to get trucks through. 

The fuel-line fires are threatening some fueling stations. 

10:30 am: Debris Task Force

US Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), US Coast Guard, Department of Transit, and Department of Ecology and others meet to discuss clearing roads and power lines.

11:00 am: Mass Care Conference Call with Local Jurisdictions

The Mass Care Taskforce needs to know more about which hospitals are functional, how many shelters should be set up, and to hear about what local jurisdictions need. Klallam tribe’s shelter is beginning to receive evacuees with pets. What should we do with them? The Red Cross is starting a blood drive and the Salvation Army is beginning to process donations.

 

11:30 pm: Lunch is served by building support staff.

12:00 pm: Draft requests for tomorrow due to Operations Section Chief

The State EOC operations staff have been tracking requests and make recommendations for tomorrow’s objectives. The various taskforces have recommendations too.

1:00 pm: EOC Update Briefing

The State EOC staff pause to get on the same page with one another. The state meteorologist gives a forecast. Incoming rain is good news for fire suppression but bad news for mass care shelters. They might need more tarps. The Public Information Officer finally gets an answer from the Department of Health about what to tell survivors about how to handle bodies. The Department of Ecology need hazmat teams to assess oil spills in the area. 

 

1:30 pm: Oil and Hazmat Coordination Group. US Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department of Natural Resources, and State Department of Ecology meet to coordinate hazmat work.

2:00 pm: Congressional Conference Call

Disaster Manager and others call Washington, Oregon, Idaho, congressional delegations and other Federal partners to give an update of the situation. 

One Washington state congresswoman is concerned about the damage to agriculture. Even though it’s very early in the response, the EOC staff do their best to give some projections to the congresswoman so she can prepare to help her constituents during long-term recovery.

2:30 pm: Power Task Force Meeting review and update strategies for getting the power back on.

3:00 pm: Tactics Meeting

Section chiefs, the State EOC supervisor, representatives from FEMA, the National Guard, and Northern Command (active duty military), meet to discuss tomorrow’s priorities. It takes a long time; there are many task assignments. A list of firefighting resources and contact info is added to the Joint Incident Action Plan. A last minute addition: Pierce county jail needs water and extra patrol. 

 

4:00 pm: Principals Conference Call

The Emergency Management Division Director, Disaster Manager, and agency executives meet to discuss incident status, policy issues, and strategic messaging. 

4:30 pm: UCG Huddle:

Coordinating officers (liaisons) meet to make sure inter-agency coordination is going well. Some state staff are having trouble using the FEMA request form.

5:00 pm: Elected Officials Call

Emergency Management Division Director, Disaster Manager, and the policy group, give an incident update to the Governor’s Chief of Staff and other elected officials. 

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The Disaster Manager with others updates elected officials.

6:00 pm: Planning Meeting

Everyone takes a look at the Joint Incident Action Plan which is a document with all the objectives that the Tactics Meeting approved, assignment lists for tomorrow, contact information, maps, and tomorrow’s meeting schedule. When it’s approved, the document get’s uploaded to the State and FEMA’s online sharing environment where it will guide tomorrow’s work.

7:00 pm: Shift Change

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The SEOC goes through tons of coffee.

Thousands of local, state, and federal staff including many branches of the military have worked all day (and night) to save lives and property. And they’ll do it again tomorrow.


This is a dramatized account of a day in the State Emergency Operation’s Center during a pretend earthquake/tsunami disaster. This account is not real and should not be panicked about. 

The People of Cascadia Rising

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This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

Here is only a very small sampling of the 20,000 participants spread across three states and federal and military headquarters. These people were found in the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the surrounding campus. Mouse over the pictures to see more.

Cascadia Rising: Preamble

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EMScholar exercises

 

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.


This blog series brought to you by the miraculous power of asking.

Unfortunately (according to some), I have been plagued since childhood by an innate desire to please people and bred by my mother’s perfect politeness to not get in the way. But through rigorous training administered by the loving type-A personalities in my life, I can now force myself to  knock softly on someone’s cubicle door–interrupting their day (gasp!)–and ask for something (double gasp!) with something approaching dignity and cheer.

That is how, via a terrifyingly casual handshake, I was introduced to Mr. Ed Taylor and Mr. Lit Dudley who are (more or less) in charge of Cascadia Rising 2016 Exercise. And how, after being brave, I was able to join the Controller Group which helps to administer the exercise, and how, after being even braver, I will be allowed to take photos and document the whole thing from start to finish.

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Well, perhaps not from the very, very start. Cascadia Rising is a regional-wide earthquake and tsunami simulation which Taylor et al have been planning for two years. It involves around 20,000 players from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho including participants from Federal, county, tribal, and city agencies, and stand-a-lone businesses like hospitals, Amazon, the Red Cross, Northwest Natural Gas, Amtrak, etc. People from Alaska, California, FEMA, University of Washington, and South America are coming to observe how the players run this 4-day disaster simulation.

The exercise is named after the Cascadia fault off the Northwest coast. You might remember it from this post. Cascadia subduction zone2.The Cascadia Rising planners created a scenario in which a 9.0 magnitude “full-rip” earthquake along the 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) fault causes subsequent tsunamis and aftershock which impact the Washington and Oregon coastline. They will deliver the “news” of this earthquake to the players across the region via simulated USGS maps and video. Then, the participants will have to respond. Local damages based on scientific projections have been pre-planned and each local controller is in charge of telling the players about outages or damages. For example (and hypothetically, since “ground truth” is a secret to the players), a county near the coast might discover that their local cell phone tower has been damaged, meaning cell phones are out as a means of contacting damage assessors in the field.

I’ll be stationed in Washington State’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) which will activate 107 state agency staff and 101 federal staff per shift. I’m looking forward to this station because the states are the conduit between local jurisdictions and federal partners. I will be at the hub of information processing, decision making, and direction giving. I can’t wait to see it all!

I hope you’ll join me for an inside look at an activated EOC this June.

 

Why 9-1-1 Can’t Save You

John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” (May 15, 2015) described the state of our 911 call grid. Much like the blog I wrote about the state of American infrastructure, our emergency response capabilities are crumbling.

  1. Most call centers have inaccurate maps and/or can’t trace cell phone locations causing them to struggle to find many victims. The FCC estimates that improved locating software might save as many as 10, 120 lives annually (3:00). Indeed, 10-95% of cell phone users run the risk of not being found in a timely manner (4:23). This is even more alarming given the fact that the Red Cross estimates that 74% of adults expect help to arrive in under 3 hours after sending a tweet.
  2. We don’t have a national or–in some cases–even a state-wide 911 response system. Each county or jurisdiction is responsible for handling their own 911 calls which makes for an extremely fragmented system (6:53). In some areas, neighboring call centers can’t meaningfully talk to one another; obviously, a big problem in a disaster.
  3. Furthermore, several states don’t have a call center at all. For instance, Washington State’s 911 calls get routed to Colorado. This is often par for the course with internet and enterprise technology, but when there was an outage at the Colorado center (April 10, 2014), Washington did not have a back up. The center was down for 3 hours and Washington lost 4,300 calls, some of which resulted in death.
  4. Call centers don’t have very modern IP networks (8:08), instead they mainly use outdated, hardwired phones (like from the ’70s). An IP network allows computers to talk to one another either in a private network (sharing files between your phone and your computer) or in a public one (the internet). Updating would allow call centers to receive text messages, social media messages, and videos besides allowing for a more robust, resilient system. Oliver makes the point that video or text could be life saving in situations like domestic violence where a phone call is too conspicuous. Emergency Managers additionally know that in a disaster, text messages often get through the crowded phone lines easier than phone calls do.
  5. Most call centers are underfunded and understaffed (9:33) which means that victims may have to wait on the line for the next operator or that the call center can’t upgrade their mapping or cellular tech.
  6. Compounding the problem is rising call volume (10:44) because of the ubiquity of cell phones and butt dials. 911 call centers simply cannot handle normal, daily call volumes; during a disaster they will be absolutely drowned. As this CBS report points out: wireless carriers have the technology to support connectivity during a disaster. The problem continues to be the overwhelmed 911 call centers.

Oliver sums up his report with “…until we’re explicitly confronted with the challenges facing 911, it seems we’re not going to do anything about them” (13:31). But I, like you, don’t wish people to die in order for change to happen.

The State of Flooding in America

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that 40% of Americans live or work near a levee. The average age of these levees are 55 years (some as old as 100 yrs) and they have worked to protect over $141 billion in flood damages–a 6:1 return on investment (24:1 on the Mississippi River and tributaries).

However, over the last 50-100 years, we have significantly developed floodplains lands, experienced sea level rise, and neglected the maintenance of these levees. ASCE gives the national levee infrastructure a D- grade (very poor). Grades are based on capacity, condition, funding, future needs, operation/maintenance, public safety, resilience (how well they withstand disasters), and innovation.

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Pump maintenance crews, NPR

It’s not only levees that protect land from floods. And it’s not only levees that are aging nationally.

  • Bridges: C+
  • Dams: D
  • Inland Waterways: D
  • Levees: D-
  • Roads: D (get flooded)
  • Wastewater management: D (pipes, sewers, storm water drains, etc.)

Every facet of our storm water management system is dismally graded meaning that Americans all over are at risk from an aging, failing infrastructure. (See the full report card here)

This autumn has seen an historical amount of rain in the midwest as an unusually warm El Nino cycle takes charge of North American weather. Illinois and Missouri have logged about 10 inches of rain over three days causing the Mississippi, Missouri rivers and tributaries to flood. Officials down south are watching carefully as Mississippi flood water is scheduled to hit the brand new New Orleans levees in about a week (Jan. 9).

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2016, Flooding in midwest raises questions about infrastructure. Especially in New Orleans where the new levees are being completed. | EMScholar

 

After Hurricane Katrina (2011), the US Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to spend about $14.6 billion to strengthen levee walls, build massive flood gates, install cool new flood modeling computers, and update the city’s water pumps (according to CNBC and NPR). But, as the Engineer Corps is wont to warn, new infrastructure doesn’t necessarily assure safety. New Orleans is a fishbowl. We can build lots of walls, but water will always need to go somewhere–a sentiment that Bob Criss Professor of geology at Washington University expresses in the Journal of Earth Science.

“The Mississippi River should not be going crazy after three days of rain,” Criss said in an interview. The problem, he believes, is that we’ve walled off rivers without thinking about a release for the water. It’s Downstream City’s problem. The Army Corps of Engineers has long agreed, stating that the Mississippi River and it’s tributaries (and–presumably–by extension all river systems) should be connected “more naturally” with the flood plains. This means undeveloping the flood plains.

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Midwestern flooding, 2015, NPR

The combination of failing infrastructure with poor long term flood management planning has caused experts from many fields to call the Federal government to reimagine national flood policy.

Current national policy is based on insurance policy statistics. You may have heard the term “100-year” or “500- year” flood or storm. A “100-year storm”is a storm of such a size that it’s chances of happening in any given year are 1%. Depending on who you ask, Hurricane Katrina was a 100-year storm. However,

 The 100-year threshold is also a statistical guess based on data on past storms and assessments of whether they’ll occur in the future. That means the models change every time a new hurricane strikes. The numbers being used as guidelines for construction are changing as time passes.

And, as an engineer working on New Orleans levees points out, the current levees were meant to protect city infrastructure. Residents shouldn’t depend upon them to protect lives. There’s always the chance that a bigger storm will come along.

Thousands of miles away, Washington State–well known for it’s rain–is also struggling with flooding. Unusual amounts of snow in the Olympics combined with lots of rain caused flooding along the coast. Enough flooding to open the Emergency Operation’s Center which stymied this researcher’s thesis by causing the people she needed to be busy. (“Graduation postponed on account of rain,” she lamented on social media.) It’s not just the rain. In fact, 2015 was actually a drier than normal year. It’s that Washington coast is built for moderate, continual rains. Not for cycles of drenching rains and drought. The Washington State Climatology Office believes that this rain-drought cycling is a direct result of global warming and won’t get better. Just like how bigger storms are becoming more regular. Global warming is causing extremes of all sorts.

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WA, Snoqualmie Falls: normal water flow on 10/23/15 and after rains just a week later on 11/1/15. (Photos by Richard, Krisha Chiu. Found here.)

What can be done?

The ASCE has a “tell your legislator” form and ways to share the news on their report card website (scroll down). We need to pressure local and federal governments to make decisions based on new data and the long view. But even more importantly, as citizens, we need to accept taxes which pay for infrastructure. In New Orleans, the city is fighting with the feds over who will pay to maintain the new levees. Voters have twice declined to raise taxes to pay for it. One frustrated official exclaims,

“We’re talking about $5 a month to the average taxpayer. That’s a six-pack. That’s a pound of crawfish in April…This is a country that’s run by the citizens. The citizens decide they don’t want to have flood protection, then we’re not going to have flood protection.”

I am not advocating for blind acceptance of every new tax hike. Like responsible people, we need to watch where our money goes. We should buy things with our taxes that are “worth it”, that is: effective, efficient, and high quality. We also need to watch that our towns and cities use our taxes the way they promised.

That seems like a lot of work. But maybe it’s worth it for keeping your house dry and your water clean.

Further Reading

 

An Unusual Winter: Boston’s trouble with Emergence

A man drags a shovel up Beacon Hill during a severe winter snow storm in Boston
Photo courtesy of Boston.com

This has been an interesting winter for Boston. Yes, lots of other places have had just as bad–or even worse–conditions and I don’t want to minimize that. But Boston has unique problems.

Shouldn’t they have been prepared?

I mean–winter’s happen every year. And every year, Boston has to deal with snow. What’s the big deal? Homeland Security Watch has this to say,

“Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.”

From the outside, it looks like Boston is simply incompetent, when the truth is that this is not a normal problem. It is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.” Emergent crises are especially hard to recognize and treat for 3 reasons.

  1. They look like normal problems. Boston has had snow before. This is a normal problem and has a normal response: plowing.
  2. Since they look like normal problems, the experts sent to deal with it, tend to get tunnel vision. Leonard & Howitt state, “Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation.”
  3. Finally, emergent crises are especially difficult to treat because they have all of the qualities of a non-standard emergency (…”the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress…”), with already deployed teams not trained in this kind of emergency. It can be hard to convince organizations already working on the problem to shift gears.

In a broader sense, emergent crises are a good example of how hard it is for responders to recognize data from noise. As I wrote here, one of the main jobs of cities, organizations, individuals, etc is to process information from the environment. More often than not, the information is meaningless (you don’t care that your shirt is touching your shoulder), but sometimes it matters (if your shirt is caught in a corn husker, suddenly you care it’s on you). But knowing what is important and what isn’t is extremely difficult since we generally don’t have the big picture or know the future (by the way, that’s why teams are so useful–each person holds a different part of the picture. Working together makes it easier to do stuff right.).

So what do we do?

Well… nothing. The human condition is such that we will always struggle a little bit to recognize new problems. But I think there’s a Communications theory that can help a little. It’s called Groupthink– you may have heard of this already. Essentially, when groups value consensus, they tend to ignore data which opposes or contravenes  their decisions and plans. Group Think could be complicating the emergent crisis/data-noise problem. But there is a solution: diversity. When groups value contrary opinions, they avoid tunnel vision and are much more successful at recognizing emergent problems.

Further reading