Disaster Reporters

Today's post is inspired by "The Search For The Internet's Next Top Weather Nerd" a Buzzfeed article about the future of meteorological reporting. Apparently weatherpersons, as part of mainstream media are falling by the wayside but finding a home online. Okay, whatever. 

When I started my work in emergency management my friends and my family began asking me weather related questions: Do you think this Tropical Storm Lee is going to grow into a hurricane? How serious is this tornado watch? What is a Superstorm and will it make it up to Maine?

To which I responded, "How should I know? I'm not a meteorologist!" 

I can tell you all about what will happen if Lee turns into a hurricane and what to do if you see a tornado, and I can tell you the point in which Maine coastal residents should start evacuating but I have a very limited ability to predict the formation, direction, and dissolvement of weather patterns. (I know so little about meteorology I'm making up words)

This speaks to my #1 problem with emergency management: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT WE DO! Through frustrating, it is understandable. The profession and discipline are both emerging (or emerged depending on who you ask).  

Emergency management can require you to quickly analyze a situation based on incomplete information. Depending on your position and the situation, you can have other people's lives in your hands so this isn't a time to fool around. 

Emergency management can get a little complicated. Thinking about disasters is kind of like mind juggling with thousands of bits of information and about a million intervening variables. Here's how I think about it.

You know how Sherlock has a mind palace? It's kind of like that.

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An example: When I hear that there is a "formation in the gulf" I open up a new mental bulletin board in my head. Central to my thinking is the geography of the area. I zoom in and out, drop pins, and track movement. Then I start asking questions and anchor them geographically. 

who lives where? how many people? what natural barriers are in the way of the storm? barrier islands? wetlands? what kind of ships are out there? oil rigs? have they evacuated yet? will it be going over the Caribbean? Haiti? what previous weather have they just experienced? has there been a recent earthquake? have there already been scares or tropical storms? even just rain that's made the ground saturated? are we going to be seeing mudslides even if it's just rain and not a hurricane? Is it headed towards the states? what is the cone projecting? well that'll change? is the gulf exceptionally hot right now? how intense? Is this a slow moving storm? fast moving? what are the wind speeds? what kind of storm surge are we looking at? If it heads towards Miami, there's a convention there right now, is it a weekend or during the week (will people have work or will they have time to board up), is it at the start or end of the month (will people have money in their accounts to evacuate), who's evacuating? when are they evacuating? where are they going? what if the storm turns up the Atlantic? What if it turns towards Mobile? Are those people ready? Are they watching? Has there been an evacuation yet this year? How seriously are residents, emergency managers, local government, state government, federal government, employers, nonprofits, etc. taking the threat? who is even reporting it right now? Is there another disaster dominating the news right now?  

The questions are endless but you get the idea. I start finding answers to these questions from articles, twitter, facebook, first hand accounts from friends, and my own observations if I'm there. I pull from my personal experiences, the history of previous events, relevant policy, and, importantly, the emergency management literature. 

Doing this is a skill, it takes practice and refinement.

Why have I mentioned all of this considering it makes me sound a little weird? Well, because, it is the logical next step to the Buzzfeed article. What happens once you know what the weather is going to be? What happens when you hear the west coast is having a drought, or that a hurricane is headed your way? Why should you care? Should you care? What are the implications? The meteorologists might make their recommendation of response actions (shelter in place, maybe evacuate) but as I demonstrated above there's a lot more knowledge that could help the people on the receiving end of these reports. Knowledge that people who study and do emergency management have and need to share. 

Emergency management reporters are the missing piece. They're the next round of people that Buzzfeed, et al. are going to need to hire. When they do they're going to realize how few of us there are. Online new sources need people that know the policy, that know the research, that can glance see the entire situation - not just wind speeds.

During last week's State of the Union, President Obama said: "climate change is a fact". Okay, true, great. Later he said, "reach out a helping hand to those that have been devastated by disaster". Again, okay, yes, let's do that, great. But he never connected the two. Obviously there is more to climate change than just disasters and there are more to disasters than just climate change but the two are very much related. 

There's very little relationship building on a day to day basis between climate scientists and disaster researchers. THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM. We are not communicating enough and we need to be. We need to bring emergency management into the conscious forefront of the general population. As Buzzfeed pointed out, we need the online new sources to lead the way, just like they are with climatologists and meteorologists.

So, Buzzfeed, give me a call.