Examining Hurricane Matthew: exaggeration and unprepared public

Oct 15, 2016 @ 10:01 PM ET By Ben Alonzo 0 Comments
hurricane matthew story

In the days before Hurricane Matthew, much of the weather models continued to show the center remaining offshore as it passes through portions of Florida, curving back out into the Atlantic Ocean. When we communicate with the public, as professional scientists, our information should be backed up by consistent and strong data, not public opinion, art, or subjective “additive” touches to beef up the language. Exaggerating only causes public distrust to grow and feeds ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Exaggerated Hurricane Information

Unscientific, sensational, and blatantly misleading information was being spread by both the media and actual weather forecasters. When the unreal expectations didn’t pan out, conspiracy theories are fed, and the public distrust of meteorologists (and science in general) grows.

During a Thursday, October 6 broadcast, Fox News anchor, Shepard Smith, told everyone “this moves 20 miles to the west, and you and everyone you know are dead… all of you… because you can’t survive it. It’s not possible, unless you’re very, very, lucky… and your kids die too.” It made for great ratings, but the blatant spread of misleading weather information at a critical time by people like Shepard Smith did a huge disservice to the public and modern science.

The weather models and current track of Matthew didn’t support any such statement. People outside of the strongest parts of hurricanes can survive these storms, if they are inland, in well-constructed homes, and were prepared. The worst part of the storm was consistently forecasted to be offshore by more than 20 miles. Even a deviation 20 miles west would not have significantly changed the hurricane impacts, given the position of the center and its forecasted strength. Hurricanes also typically weaken as they move over land. Our weather surveillance network continued to indicate the claims of “nobody being able to survive” were unsupported.

When you tell the public that they are going to die, if they stay put, but your opinion isn’t based on confident weather data, you’re just passing misinformation – which is unscientific. Modern science is very objective, accurate, critical, valuable, and should be used to make major decisions, such as weather watches, warnings, and evacuation notices. We may also be too overcautious, which is just as bad as careless because it’s essentially unreasonable – also not supported by data.

Showing pictures of less developed countries and comparing it to US infrastructure is also ridiculous. The same tornado or hurricane can hit just a few miles away causing totally different damage. Complicated factors, such as building materials, age, height, and other variables make every place on Earth different. A well-built home will withstand higher winds. It’s unscientific to compare shacks to stronger structures. It makes for thrilling video that gets attention, but that’s about it. Hurricane Matthew was bad, but its impacts in the US would not be as bad as Haiti – because of structural variables as well as meteorological positioning of the most intense part of the storm.

Meteorologists with hurricane forecast training know that the worst portion of a hurricane is the right front quadrant, due to its movement component in the same direction. Winds and damage tend to be higher in this area. The Orlando, Florida area was consistently far enough west of this area in most models, which means that it was not in the forecasted “worst” area of the hurricane. Science didn’t support the “worst case scenario” or “you will die” claims.

The coverage of Matthew by numerous sources was another example of exaggerated, unscientific, weather information that will only cause more public distrust.

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The scientific data (meteorological models) did not exactly support the claims of death and destruction made by various news outlets, meteorologists, and even government officials. For example, surface stations consistently reported tropical storm force winds with some minimal hurricane bursts, for the most part. We also have to consider the fact that hurricane force winds only extend so far from the center, in this case. Real-time data didn’t support the doomsday scenario (see above map).

We’ve got to give people just the facts (leave out the sensationalism), otherwise they will continue to have a distrust for meteorologists, emergency management, and science in general. Report what the actual data shows. Report the actual surface winds. Actual empirical, measurable data is the best resource when real-time weather information is necessary.

Unreal Expectations & Low Confidence

No forecast is perfect. Our understanding of the atmosphere and tools to monitor it allow us to produce some of the most accurate advanced forecasts ever made. There’s still the human factor. The general public wants the perfect forecast. If you’re wrong, you’re blamed. If you’re overcautious (safe than sorry technique), you create a sense of repeatedly crying wolf to the public, you’re blamed.

Someone in a position to make significant forecast decisions for large amounts of people should have a higher level of confidence. Confidence comes from training, experience, and supporting weather data. When you deal with millions of lives, it’s easier to be overly cautious, but this creates cycle of unreasonable expectations and low confidence. The “what if” “safe than sorry” ideologies should be carefully implemented in a way that it doesn’t become unreasonable in of itself.

We can avoid being overly cautious – there is such a thing. We must accept the fact that disasters occur and they kill people. Our efforts focus on reducing loss of property and life, but we will never fully protect everyone. We should be reasonable, but our decisions should be based on objective science.

We must accept that forecasts change, but if our data continued to show category 1 maximum sustained winds and an offshore center with our target forecast area on the western edge of the hurricane center, then we should focus on this data. The data (all the way up to arrival) said that Central Florida wasn’t going to get the highest winds or worst damage. Somehow, this isn’t what you heard, if you were watching coverage of the storm.

Public Not Prepared

Hurricane Matthew was a wake-up call for everyone. People that are already prepared for a hurricane shouldn’t need to raid stores the day before a hurricane. This is a huge indication that much of the general public are extremely unprepared for natural disasters.

The very act of last-minute clearing of store shelves creates panic because everyone tries to buy the same thing at the same time.

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Much of the public has no alternative power sources. Once commercial power goes out, how will you get your information?

One set of batteries isn’t enough. You should also make sure you have multiple types of batteries. Many consumer electronic devices use AA or AAA batteries. Flashlights tend to also use larger batteries. Be sure to get a lot of batteries.

Your cell phone only lasts a day (on a full charge, without talking). How will you recharge? How will you communicate?

The best practice here is to turn all unnecessary services off to avoid battery draining. You can also turn off your phone when not using it. Thankfully, the cell phone network is much more reliable than other communication methods, even during severe storms. One of the things that went well during hurricane Matthew was the cell phone network coverage. Having a cell phone allowed people to communicate and keep informed about the situation. Many people had no alternative charging methods. It’s best to have multiple ways to charge your battery. You can use your car, a solar charger, or extra external battery (power block).

Why do you need to go to the store, if you already have nonperishable foods, at least 3 days of water, batteries, and flashlights?

According to FEMA, people should always have food and water supplies that will last at least 72 hours (3 days). Your emergency food supply should have a long shelf life and you should taste test it to make sure all ingredients are edible to you. You should have water bottles and larger containers of drinking water.

There is a public notion that “I don’t have to because the government will save me”, which is not accurate.

Although there are government emergency response agencies, they cannot be everywhere immediately. An individual or family will likely be on their own to survive for at least a few days after any major disaster. Emergency services and 911 will likely not be available during or immediately after major disasters. Plan on taking care of yourself.

Should I evacuate?

Evacuation is complicated and the answer is different for multiple reasons. For example, hospitals need more time to evacuate and they have critical patients that wouldn’t survive power outages, unlike healthy people at home. People close to the shore versus inland may also consider structural integrity, storm strength, and degree of preparedness. Evacuation isn’t something simple that always applies to everyone.

If we cry wolf too much, people may decide not to listen to forecasters at all. People could decide to ignore evacuation orders or just recall the Category 4 they survived that did no damage to their neighborhood – at worst leaving them without power. The wind speeds were not Category 4 in Orlando, Florida.

Hurricane Matthew left a path of death and destruction in Haiti for multiple reasons, including less developed infrastructure, an existing cholera epidemic, existing homelessness, poor building structures, the position of the strongest part of the storm, ocean temperatures at the time, and so many other complicated factors. Perhaps the calls of death and destruction advertised by people like Shepard Smith should have been directed towards Haiti before the hurricane hit them.

Solutions

We must stop exaggerating forecasts. If the data is consistent and the forecaster is confident, then such details should be passed along without adding excessive subjective language. Some people just aren’t going to listen to our warnings, no matter what language we use – we must accept that fact. Our decisions should be made on objective scientific data. There is room for adjusting forecast tracks to account for deviations, but only deviations supported by the data – not arbitrarily creating a scenario that our data says is very-to-highly unlikely. Give the general public just the facts.

The news media must exercise responsibility during times of major emergencies to avoid causing unnecessary fear and panic. Telling people they cannot survive something without understanding the subject matter is extremely ignorant and dangerous to our public. People have survived far worse hurricanes and tornadoes, they have occurred throughout history. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes because our understanding of atmospheric science and advanced technology resources indicate we could do much better.

bio
Author: Ben Alonzo is a scientist, professor, tech expert, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s currently CEO of the tech firm Emera Media. He holds a M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Health, and a B.S. in Geoscience. Alonzo is a highly-rated professor that teaches numerous courses at multiple colleges, including earth science, meteorology, environmental science, geology, oceanography, and public health. His diverse background also spans network and computer engineering, healthcare, telecommunications, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, and web development. He holds a variety of professional credentials, ranging from A+ information technology to healthcare provider and emergency medical technician certifications. He’s been writing about science and tech for over 10 years.
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