Editorial: Renewing My Call For a National Disaster Review Board

What happens when the ability of weather science to forecast a catastrophe outstrips the ability of emergency management to respond to the forecast?

There is an unprecedented catastrophe in progress in Texas. Before anyone could fully respond to the wind damage caused by Category 4 Hurricane Harvey, what will be the worst flooding in the history of the state was already underway. During the past decade, weather science has made amazing progress in forecasting extreme weather. Harvey’s one-two punch was fully forecast by AccuWeather, the National Weather Service and others days in advance.
And, it wasn’t just Harvey’s winds and position that were well forecast.“Catastrophic” (the word used by many forecasters) flooding was forecast, as well. At 9:10am Thursday, when Harvey was still a tropical storm, this blog told people living in a 100-year flood plain to prepare to evacuate. At 8:10am Friday, the following advice was posted:
Suggestion to people in 250-year flood plains to prepare to evacuate
Speaking for myself, I was highly reluctant to post this because of the (relatively) high probability of being wrong and risking my reputation. Yet, I – and many others – stuck our necks out to warn our enterprise customers and the public-at-large so as to mitigate the effects of the storm.

Yet, even as the rains continue to fall, we are, unfortunately, starting to hear some unsettling comments:

Via Twitter

Our frustration: It does no good for us to make these extraordinary forecasts if the public-at-large, private and public sector emergency managers, and political officials do not act in accordance with the forecast.

We know that the wind forecasts for Harvey were largely acted on by emergency managers and by the public. We also know many did not fully react to the flood forecasts. Why? I asked my friend and University of Alabama expert in social science as it pertains to meteorological disasters, Dr. Laura Myers. She replied, “Government officials apparently felt that trying to evacuate that many people from the huge amount of flood prone areas would overwhelm their plan so they decided not to issue evacuation orders. That makes it an individual issue. Why didn’t individuals heed the information and get themselves to higher ground? I think that’s the real issue here. Getting people to understand they could have removed themselves from harm’s way if they had just moved out before this hit would have been key to mitigating this situation. The problem is that people have not thought about a plan for this.”
Laura went on to comment, we might be “Surprised at how many people did get themselves out of harm’s way without the government telling them they should.” Among the people who did not, Laura offers these reasons,
  • ·      They didn’t think it would be that bad.
  • ·      They could not imagine the impacts of this amount of rain so they just resigned themselves to it. Hope for the best.
  • ·      They didn’t pay attention to the information until it was too late.
  • ·      They didn’t have a plan so they decided to take the risk.
  • ·      They didn’t think they could help themselves. They had no place to go, no transportation, animals to take care of, or resources/disabilities/age limited their ability to help themselves.
  • ·      Then there are those who think they can handle it no matter how bad it gets. They think they can drive in it, their homes are sufficient, etc. They don’t realize their underestimation until it’s too late.
  • ·      There are also those who are afraid to leave their property for fear they won’t be allowed back or that their property will be looted while they are gone.”
We cannot fully project the full extent of this disaster because the rain continues to fall. I suspect it is going to be worse than the New Orleans’ flooding from Katrina.
Via Twitter
Laura adds, “It’s going to be interesting to hear how the public reacts to all of this. Will they feel they should have been told to evacuate? Many of them will. Will they feel they were not properly warned? Some of them will, not because they weren’t warned but because of how they responded to the information (See my list above for the reasons). Will they blame government officials for a bad response? Yes, they will because they don’t understand that the response was overwhelmed by the event and the number of people needing assistance. There would have been criticism no matter what decisions and choices were made. There are pros and cons to all decisions. It’s going to take a good evaluation of this event to determine the lessons learned and the best practices that evolved in this event.Bingo!!!

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I was – for a time – involved in the post-event quality evaluation by the National Weather Service. Even with my limited involvement, it quickly became apparent the United States desperately needs a National Disaster Review Board. I will not repeat the details of my proposal in this posting since they are outlined here: Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking on the links, which I urge you to read.

The National Transportation Safety Board has done an extraordinary job of staying above politics and making airline travel, railroads and just about every other form of transportation much safer. The National Disaster Review Board would be similarly structured.

Since Sandy and my original proposal in 2012, one more reason has presented itself: institutional memory of how to handle extreme natural hazards. Three years ago, I made a presentation to the Gulf coast electric utilities at their annual meeting in Ft. Worth. At the time of that meeting, it had been nine years since Wilma, the last hurricane of Category 3 intensity or higher (of course, it had been nearly twelve years Friday when Harvey broke our streak of good luck) had struck the United States. I asked for a show of hands of how many had been on the job for nine years or more (i.e., would remember a Cat 3 or stronger hurricane and how to respond). Maybe a third of the audience raised their hands. In our upwardly mobile society, probably a quarter or less would raise their hands today. In our mobile society, we too frequently lose our institutional memories of how to handle these “high impact/low frequency” events. 

Here's an analogy: What would happen if airlines forgot how to handle (rare) downbursts as the large number of Vietnam-era pilots retire? That knowledge has not vanished, in part, because the NTSB's research and reports has kept those procedures and knowledge alive. I believe Hurricane Harvey will cost the public, government of all types and insurance companies tens of billions of dollars. The financial stakes alone are too high to let whatever we learn after this event just dissipate. 

Believe me, it goes against my grain for this political conservative to recommend yet another government agency. But, with a growing population, the stakes are too high.

President Trump and Congress: We need a National Disaster Review Board.


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