Sunday Morning: Florence decision time approaches

Things actually didn’t change too much overnight, and I’ll post a full analysis as the 11am NHC package is released since that will be used by most emergency managers for decisions today, so here’s some thoughts on information sources and the process. I want to again caution everyone using social media like Facebook: the Facebook algorithms do not show you posts chronologically, but by popularity!  Be absolutely sure you are looking at the most recent information!

As decision time approaches for taking action on Tropical Storm (likely to be a Hurricane again some time today, possibly this morning) Florence, it’s time to review some information sources and toss out some words on the overall storm response process.  First, information.  There’s really only one source of hurricane track and intensity forecasts: the National Hurricane Center. Your best bet, quick overview, TLDR product is the “Key Messages” graphic.  Here’s the one for Florence.  If your local TV folks are scaring the beejesus out of you, go check the NHC site and see how closely their big picture message matches the NHC message and if not, go somewhere  else.

Everybody uses NHC’s products as a starting point.  The problem is that increasingly other people with far less experience and expertise, especially in the news media, are using the raw track forecasts and data to put their own opinions out there and diluting NHC’s message. Was watching CNN yesterday, and they spent only about 10% of the air time talking about the NHC track and reasoning and the rest talking about track models.  That’s irresponsible – the emphasis should always be on the NHC forecast.  On social media I see people with zero tropical cyclone experience talking about this or that model.  It’s interesting and exciting to discuss the models, especially beyond the 5 day limit of the NHC forecasts.  But NHC only forecasts to five days for a reason, and if someone can’t answer basic questions like what are the components of the TVCN model and what is its current 96 hour cross-track error as of the latest forecast package ( 103 nautical miles if you’re curious), laugh condescendingly and move on.

It is important to realize the roles various parties play in this process, and what their agendas are.  Of course everyone wants you to be safe – but they also want other things and it’s important to realize what those things are, and how it influences their point of view. NHC’s purpose is forecasting with an eye towards issuing watches and warnings.  They want to be “right” – but they also really really don’t want to be “wrong.”  This means they tend to be “conservative.”  What does that mean exactly?  It means they would rather, on average, overestimate things like storm wind speeds and impacts, because they don’t want people to be surprised by a worse storm than predicted (which potentially leads to more casualties and congressional hearings).  So you will often see NHC use the phrase “forecast of least regret”.  However, they are of course aware of that, and strive for a balance.  It’s a tough job.  The bottom line here is that NHC has the best mix of experience and resources to make those watch and warning calls.

Unfortunately, the people involved in the actual evacuation decisions are a) less experienced and b) often have political, legal, and experiential biases that lead to problems.  Key among these are two trends: politicians (especially Governors) making evacuation decisions, and local emergency managers coming from a law enforcement rather than a civil defense background.  I ranted a bit about this in a Facebook post this spring if you’re curious.

The News Media also has some biases and agendas that make information from them sometimes problematic. The first is they want to have a local focus.  That’s great, but in a situation like Florence the stations in each market want to talk about what would happen if the storm hit their viewing area.  So if you review the weathercasts from outlets from Jacksonville FL to Wilmington NC, with a few exceptions you’d think the storm was headed to each one, without a lot of perspective on what the probability of any given area being hit.  The time limitations of newscasts just doesn’t allow for that kind of nuance, even if the on air meteorologist had that kind of background and experience.  Weather is a key “grab” for local markets in the competition for market share.  So they want to make their weathercasts flashy, interesting, and make you want to come back for more.  It’s not that they want to intentionally mislead you, but in their efforts to play on your emotions to make you stay tuned, download their app (which are designed as much as marketing tools as information sources – be very careful with them as they often siphon off your contact lists, browsing history, and other privacy related info!), combined with the time limitations, the net effect is that they are often quite misleading as to the actual likely impacts of a storm on you personally.

The net effect of all this is that NHC is conservative (which is reasonable), emergency managers exaggerate a bit to try to get you to take action and follow their directions (I have a problem with this), Politicians often want to use disasters to make themselves look authoritative (this is disgusting), your local news media is basing their reports towards the dramatic (this makes me want to beat up grass), so the information you get is not just worst case, it’s often blown completely out of proportion across the board to the point where the message that needs to get to people who are often at real, life threatening risk is diluted, and the risk to everyone else distorted.

So what about Enki Research?  As a scientist, I’m looking for some kind of objective truth with respect to the economic and humanitarian impacts of hurricanes.  In my analyses, I don’t care so much if I’m high or low on any given storm, only that on average over many events (and note I often analyze 50 or 60 storms and dozens of earthquakes a year), that the errors in the estimates of economic and humanitarian impacts are minimized.  This is very different from virtually every other analyst you are likely to encounter outside the academic world, especially available to the general public.  As noted above, most other sources have a built in bias towards the high end on impacts – they would rather overestimate the impacts than underestimate them.  But that carries with it some risks.  Overwarning (“boy who cried wolf” effect) is one, increased economic impacts are another.  In one sense I don’t care if you read this or not (in fact, I sort of wish you wouldn’t so I could just do research and not have to spend an hour typing up this crap!).  But I’m also glad folks find it helpful, and as long as you, the unwashed masses 😛 want me to continue posting my analyses, I will …

10 thoughts on “Sunday Morning: Florence decision time approaches

  1. I absolutely want you to continue to let us, the “unwashed masses , ” (I prefer “unschooled masses,” but whatever) have the benefit of your observations, especially spiced with your humor. I shall never forget my surprise ata and always be grateful for, your answering a specific question from me years ago. Thanks, Chuck.

  2. I, for one, completely agree with you. I am a long term gov’t employee, and I can state that govt officials are out of control with regards to weather psychosis. Drives me insane!!!!

  3. Please keep writing-though I know it is a slog for you, at times. I am trying to confine my sources to NHC and you because I value my blood pressure and don’t want more stress than I already have. I think we all sense that there is an agenda behind some of the frantic social media, blog posts and local news forecasts, but it is very easy to get sucked into a catastrophe mode. That doesn’t serve anyone. There are common sense precautions and necessary awareness and then there is …what we see each year of late. I think it is one of the consequences of the internet and a 24 hour news cycle and a free pedestal for everyone’s opinion. Thanks for your efforts. They are appreciated.

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