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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Risk Mitigation

I've discussed acceptable vs unacceptable risk before.  The Atlanta Zombie Icepocalypse illustrates the concepts in a rather immediate way:

[S]tate governments and big cities and counties don’t get their weather analyses from these public bulletins and advisories. Instead, they get direct briefings from National Weather Service meteorologists. To hear the public officials tell it, they were caught off-guard by the storm, so somewhere in that communications system there was a serious disconnect. The decision-makers either didn’t get the message, or more likely, didn’t have appropriate action plans, which the threatening forecast would have triggered.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal threw the National Weather Service under the bus - going so far as to say that local TV weather people made more accurate forecasts – but his statement shows a complete misunderstanding of the role of the NWS forecasters and the role of emergency decision-makers, including himself. The meteorologists make the weather forecasts, the emergency managers and decision-makers at cities, counties, states, and school boards are supposed to understand the impact of the weather, direct the government response, and communicate recommended actions to the public. Shockingly, the governor and the Atlanta mayor didn’t see that as their responsibility. 

This is distressingly similar to Hurricane Sandy, of course. A major city, along with the state in this case, in spite of direct communications with the National Weather Service, is unable to put the pieces together to understand the RISK to their citizens. Risk implies uncertainty, and understanding it is at the heart of decision-making. Let’s say the chance of the storm producing 3 inches of snow was 30% on Monday, which sounds about right. The Georgia decision-makers didn’t understand that a 30% risk of a cataclysm requires major affirmative action. You can’t wait for a guarantee. 

How about a 20% chance of tens of thousand of people being stranded on the highway in freezing temperatures? Is that enough for a governor or mayor to make the decision to tell people to stay home? It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science. Mostly, you have to understand the ingredients that have to come together to create a disaster in your city.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans understood this process and closed down the city in advance of the ice that was forecast there. That wasn’t a guarantee either, but the RISK was sufficient that he made the hard and right decision.

Somewhere and somehow somebody has got to take the lead on closing the threat-understanding gap between forecasters, decision-makers, and the public. It’s not simple because of the division of responsibilities between various federal, state, and local agencies in a disaster. But, we’ve seen too many instances where good-enough weather forecasts have lead to bad decisions and poor public communications. The issue is partly science, which we should be able to solve with an organized effort by the National Weather Service, FEMA, and others. 

But there’s another big problem, which the Georgia governor articulated very well in his news conference. He was more afraid to be wrong in closing down the city, than he was of people being stranded in their cars. Until we can develop a system that keeps politics out of it and lets science and good judgment drive the decision-making bus, this kind of thing is going to keep happening.

A 30% chance of 3 inches of snow in Vermont is not a big deal.  We've got the road equipment and crews to mitigate impact, not to mention most of us typically have experience driving in snow, winter tires, AWD vehicles, etc.  School and other officials, business owners, et al, also have gone through enough of this stuff to know when you should cancel events and close doors.

It's quite different in Georgia.  Maybe a bit of hyperbole, but in essence the Governor played Russian Roulette with bullets in 2 chambers.  Snow and ice cause much worse problems down there, so even the same percentage chance as a mild storm up here is a significantly greater threat of disaster.

On the bright side, with climate change messing up our weather patterns, I'm sure folks in Georgia will start getting used to this stuff and figure out how to mitigate it!


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As Jon Stewart pointed out, The Weather Channel is headquartered in Atlanta. I knew it would be bad and I was in North Carolina. Parenthetically, they did react a little faster, but Charlotte is no better prepared than Atlanta with regard to trucks, salt, etc.

Another piece of this is that the business community refused to recognize the risk, too. There's nothing that should have stopped people from closing early, initiating Work-from-Home plans, or otherwise taking steps to protect their workers. Surely some of them have seen snow in quantity before and could recognize that Atlanta would not be prepared...

Posted by: Darryl Brashier | Feb 1, 2014 5:25:45 PM

I was most surprised that schools didn't close. We even close them here for significant snow or bitter cold sometimes, so I would've thought the possibility of a few inches down where people don't normally deal with it would've put the fear of dog into them.

Posted by: NTodd | Feb 1, 2014 5:51:05 PM

The problems of Atlanta in a nutshell. All politics is local.

And the streets of Atlanta (the city) were clear in 24 hours. The streets that weren't clear were in Atlanta metro, i.e., not the city. Most of this problem was human-made, and it goes back to the decision (IMHO) to make cars the primary form of mass transit.

But that's another grumble....

Posted by: Rmj | Feb 1, 2014 6:58:26 PM

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