Disasterology: Storm warnings that work — a lesson from Sandy

October 3, 2013

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

Even big storm warnings must get personal if they’re going to do any good. Few people know that better than Jason Tuell, director of the Eastern Region of the U.S. National Weather Service, which includes nearly all of the swath that last year’s storm Sandy cut when it came ashore last October.

People in the path of a storm don’t want technical data about storm surges and wind fields, Tuell told journalists participating in our fellowship on disaster management. “What people want to know is, right now, where I’m standing, when is the water going to hit my toes, how deep is it going to get and when are my feet going to be dry again?”

Tuell cited two examples of warnings that worked. One was a briefing by Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist from Mount Holly, New Jersey, a day before the storm came ashore: “If you are being asked to evacuate a coastal location by state and local officials, please do so,” Szatkowski pleaded. “Think about your loved ones, think about the emergency responder who will be unable to reach you when you make the panicked phone call to be rescued, think about the rescue/recovery teams who will rescue you if you are injured or recover your remains if you do not survive … If you think the storm is over-hyped and exaggerated, please err on the side of caution. You can call me up on Friday … and yell at me all you want. I will listen to your concerns and comments, but I will tell you in advance, I will be very happy that you are alive & well, no matter how much you yell at me.”

That briefing persuaded people to leave their homes as no amount of technical information did, Tuell said.

The personal approach, using vivid language, also worked during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when one warning said simply:

“Life as we know it will be unimaginable in the weeks after this storm.”

Making the danger feel real can take a more tangible form, Tuell said. Another example: emergency personnel in Texas who distributed toe tags to people in the evacuation zone. “They said, ‘Please put your name on it, because we want to have help identifying your body when you don’t survive.’ And that was somewhat effective.”

Top photo: A worker carries a screw gun as he rebuilds a boardwalk destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, in Bay Head, New Jersey March 21, 2013. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson)

Bottom photo: Jason Tuell. (Reuters: Deborah Zabarenko)

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