How we talk about Hurricane Sandy

As perhaps I should have expected, Google provided an incredibly useful, accessible tool for visualizing information immediately leading up to and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The tool provided the projected the track, intensity, precipitation and storm surge associated with the event. Even more useful, it included Red Cross shelters, FEMA shelters and food distribution points. Although this is a particularly powerful example of how social media and the web may aggregate available information to anticipate and respond to extreme weather, as a country we need to shift from a mindset of disaster response to one of disaster prevention.

Calling events like Hurricane Sandy the “New Normal” is not only scientifically simplistic, – see Curtis Brainard’s and Andrew Revikin’s discussion of Hurricane Sandy in the context of climate change – psychologically it implies that we should simply accept the increasing cost of extreme weather events (a cost that has largely come from increasing our exposure to extreme weather as opposed to an increase in the incidence of that weather). There is little that could be more dangerous than implying that as the climate changes there is neither anything we can do to mitigate that change, nor anything we can do to reduce our vulnerability to that change. When communicating projections of changing intensity and distributions of extreme events, language should be chosen very carefully. The risk management community has already provided numerous studies on the effects that word choice has on public perception as they have sought to express the risks posed by low frequency, high intensity events.

The risk posed by extreme weather is often obtuse and difficult to explain. People rarely understand how dangerous an area may be unless they have lived through a disaster, but that does not mean that the scientific community has no responsibility to work on effective communication. There must be a concerted effort on the part of the scientific community to develop a lexicon appropriate for the public, and one appropriate for decision makers. Without this effort we risk falling further into a mindset of reaction. Into a mindset that decouples our actions from the losses that ensue. There are too many examples of this already.

Perhaps the most frustrating example of policy reflecting a complacent acceptance of increasingly frequent weather-related losses is flood zone development. In this case it is often not an issue of risk communication, anyone that cantilevers a restaurant out over the ocean can take a look out the window at high tide to get an idea of flood risk. Despite a clear understanding and communication of potential losses, zoning continues to encourage development in high risk areas. An Article in the Huff Post does a particularly good job of detailing the paradoxical calls to action made by Mayor Bloomberg in the midst of continuing coastal development in NYC. The article cites at least a half dozen ways in which the city and the state pioneered funding research to characterize the risks posed by sea level rise and storm surge, only to promptly dismiss the most substantive concerns raised by these reports.

As a country we need to firmly establish a starting point for bringing our policies on coastal development in line with our risk assessment research. Although altering already developed coasts is a more difficult conversation, wrought with both moral and political issues, preventing knowingly locating people in the path of a disaster should be less controversial. We can’t afford to continue sending the message through implemented policies that coastal development is a matter of economic interest only. There is a certain audacity to pausing the breakneck development of coastal areas only long enough to grieve for those lost in the storm before resuming work as before. I’m not implying a halt to development, only a balance of the economic benefits with the physical risks.

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