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?

Irma prediction model
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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Mind over Manufacturing: what do to when the system defeats you.

I have many hobbies, one of which is sewing, and lately I’ve become enamored with Japanese folk textiles. Specifically boro. (Special thanks to Sri Threads for many of the pictures.)

I like boro textiles because they are burdened with more than the “waste not, want not”, Great Depression-style resourcefulness I grew up with. The Japanese (from my limited understanding) have a more nuanced relationship with waste, repair, and beauty. That Wikipedia link above includes tangential concepts that are beautifully exemplified by boro textiles. For instance: kintsugi or the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold which has come to symbolize that history is what makes a piece beautiful. Or the exclamation “mottainai” which means “what a waste!” and comes from a Shinto belief that objects have souls. (Remember how Marie Kondo thanks her shoes for doing a good day’s work and some how–even though she knows it’s silly–it makes her feel better about herself and her possessions?) Westerners–especially this new generation of self-sufficient, economically/ecologically conscious ones– we may hate waste, but do we lament waste as a minor death?

borofutonji3c

Take a look at these boro textiles again and their sashiko stitching which both strengthens the delicate hemp cloth and beautifies it (we might call it wabi-sabi, perhaps). Did you know that sometimes, the Japanese would recycle thread from old clothes to do this? Imagine painstakingly pulling out each stitch so you could reuse the thread instead of simply cutting the seam apart.


So, as an artist, I got all fired up about the sustainability of hand stitching when my heater broke. True, it was an old heater, but if it was old, it should be simpler to fix, no? Just a matter of finding an expert. But I couldn’t fix it. No one made the parts for it, and I couldn’t get to the broken bit anyway. I was left with a blanket around my shoulders helpless to save the world from our booming landfills.

 

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An early 19th c. American quilt made out of feed sacks. A western frugality. Courtesy of QuiltHistory.com

Then, I went on the internet and happened to discover planned obsolescenceor the strategy of shortening a products usable life by design. Sometimes this means aesthetically (clothes and cars do this since their materials often are more durable than fashion houses and auto brands would prefer. Although, don’t get me started on fast fashion: so shoddy that even Africa is starting to reject our secondhand clothes.) Sometimes planned obsolescence means simply designing things that can’t be repaired. Like clothes dryer drums molded to the machine so you can’t replace the part that breaks; watches and phones that are one piece so you can’t get inside to replace a battery without destroying them; or printer ink cartridges that lie about how much ink is left.

 

 

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Credit: Ray Van Eng Photography | Getty Images

As an Emergency Manager and socially-conscious person, I’m trained to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. We commonly think that it’s a matter of laziness; that if we can get people to care enough, they would make an emergency kit, build up a pantry, and stop living so wastefully. But I do care. I love boro cloth and I still can’t stop living wastefully. 

 

Kate Fletcher wrote a paper about emotional durability. In it, she critiques our focus on durability as a product of good design, material, and construction processes and suggests that psychological factors also make a thing durable.

The logic goes like this:

  • Some scientists have claimed that you can get people to hang on to goods longer if you cause them to form an emotional attachment to the object.
  • That’s true, but usually people who form attachments to objects collect them and store them instead of using them.
  • Fletcher did some ethnography and claims:  “… while mending and altering were common, the physical durability of the garment per se appears less critical to the piece’s durability than a user’s habit of mind fostering long-term use” (p.231)

In other words, durability has more to do with how you treat an object than how long its materials last. Here’s an example Fletcher gives in page 232. I do recommend clicking through so you can see the picture:

A Life of Action “I call this my three stage jacket. It began about forty years ago as a very slim waistcoat that was given to me. I knitted a panel and put it into the back just to be able to fasten it together at the front, you see. And then about fifteen years ago I added sleeves and a collar and some trimmings. And then, only about five years ago, I became a bit too big to button it up so I added latchets across to the front so that I can fasten it.” (Figure 1)

She goes on to recommend (with others) that the fashion industry–and I would add, society at large–change from “ownership” to “usership”. Fletcher urges the fashion industry to design garments that require collaboration with the wearer; that can be used for more than one occasion or fashion period; that can be altered and passed down. I think that that applies to all objects. Before you bring an object in to your house, think about whether or not you would enjoy using it as opposed to whether or not you would enjoy having it. Changing your identity from an owner to a user opens up many possibilities for adaptation in the future.

Of course, it’s also your responsibility to develop (or find someone who has developed) the technical skills to make those adaptions such as knitting, gluing, composting, and hammering. It also means you are responsible for properly cleaning, maintaining, and storing your objects. This summer I was the recipient of a 50 year old cast iron pressure canner in near-mint condition because the original owner was meticulous about cleaning it. I mean: marine-level clean. It’s perfect. And now it’s my turn to keep it that way.

But it’s all worth it. Just ask any crafter how much fun it is to reuse a thing you thought was dead.

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Credit: clothing designers CoolHunting

On the Lighter Side: Animals Predict Disasters

I’ve been working diligently on my school work for a while, so haven’t had the time or interest to keep posting. Add to that a TREMENDOUS case of Spring Fever, and you’ve got a girl in the garden instead of at her computer. Since I’m experiencing some crisis/compassion fatigue, so I decided that today’s blog post should be light-hearted. I thought I might share with you some crazy disaster facts for fun, but on the way I found a much better topic. Behold:

The Science of Animals Predicting Disasters:

Does Fluffy know best after all?

In 1979, animals sensing impending doom was a compelling new area of inquiry because of one Chinese city. Four years earlier–1975–Chinese officials, noticing strange animal behavior ordered the evacuation of the very large city of Haicheng. Indeed, a 6.7 earthquake did strike and despite the “uneven” evacuation (according to this article), thousands of lives were saved. This was so exciting that scientists got together to talk about it. And they produced this paper summarizing everything the community knew about animal predictions:

Abstract_animals predict earthquakes

Notice the optimistic ending: “It is hoped that precursory animal behavior may eventually be better understood, to the point that it may one day be used as a reliable seismic precursor.”

Unfortunately, in the excitement, the story was colored a little. While it’s true that odd animal behavior encouraged Chinese officials to evacuate the town, what finally convinced them were foreshocks which damaged a few buildings. (A foreshock is just like an aftershock only before the earthquake).

So what do we know now? How far has Animal Predict-ology come from 1979. Let’s see…

In the end, it’s much more reliable to use actual measuring instruments to predict earthquakes. Still…I suppose if you see Fluffy heading for the hills, you should turn on the news.

PS: I highly recommend you peruse that 1979 conference paper. It’s only 13 pages long and it has gems like this:

Table 2_Animals predict earthquake
It’s trying so hard to be unbiased.

Further Reading:

  • National Geographic article
  • Article from the Telegraph about a more recent proposal for using toads to predict Earthquakes. Has a video! Also, the citation for today’s featured image.