Friday, October 9, 2015

Meteorological Tunnel Vision

...and a possible explanation why the chicken crossed the road.

As a Meteorologist, I have seen a lot of unfortunate events play out due to the weather. Houses blown apart by tornadoes, whole sections of cities submerged by floodwaters, coastlines ravaged, and the list could go on and on. Those losses are bad, but if no one is killed or seriously injured, I tend to look at the event as a success from a warning standpoint in the sense that people were warned, they listened, and no one died.

Then there are the casualties from people doing what I would consider unwise…not seeking shelter with an approaching tornado, driving through flooded streets, standing outside in a thunderstorm, and again, the list could go on and on. One of my passions is helping people understand the weather so that they can make smart, informed decisions. Whether that be outreach or warnings, my goal is to provide the best information possible and, in turn, hopefully save some lives. Out of this passion comes frustration when I hear of casualties that were, in my view, avoidable. Don’t get me wrong, I am saddened that they happen, but I struggle when people do not heed our warnings.

Passion is a funny thing, though. I believe it’s an important part of life and a great trait to have in any profession. But, I also believe that with passion comes responsibility. Among other things, passion can sometimes cause tunnel-vision. A person can get so focused on something that their surroundings grow blurry or even get ignored.

For years, I totally missed a very important aspect of the decision-making process during severe weather events. Unintentionally, my tunnel-vision led me to believe that when people ignore a warning, it is out of pride, ignorance, or just plain foolish. Boy, did I need a wake-up call…and I got that call a little over a year ago.

On April 28, 2014 (almost 3 years to the day after the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak), severe weather broke out across parts of the Southeast. I was living in northern Alabama at the time and was closely following the event, both during and after. Following the event, stories began emerging about people who had lost their lives. One such story had the headline, “2 Killed in Limestone were Mother, Adult Son who Refused to Go to Shelter, Park Owner Says”.

Warnings were out, a tornado was reported, the mobile home park owner was going door to door warning people, AND there was a shelter right there in the park. I mean, clearly, anyone not heeding those warnings and not taking shelter had to be in one of those unwise categories. My weather-focused brain simply assumed there was no other possibility.

A follow-up to the original story revealed a very important aspect that wasn’t initially reported. The mother in the story was terrified of leaving her home and she begged others in the house not to leave her. Everyone decided to take shelter except her son…he decided to stay with his Mom. Reading that was like a punch in the face. I mean, this guy wasn’t foolish, he was a hero. If someone jumps in front of a car to save someone else, do we say, ‘Well gosh, that was stupid?’ No, we praise their valiant effort to save a life. The guy in this story risked his life, presumably to make sure his mother wasn’t alone in her state of fear. Whoa, what do we do with that?

More recently, a lot of people have been criticized for their behavior around floodwaters with the major flooding event in the Carolinas. If you’ve followed the event at all, you have probably seen many posts and/or videos of people making what appears to be very unwise decisions. Flood warnings are out, we’ve preached “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”, the EMA is saying please stay off roads. And what are people doing? Driving on roads…and flooded roads at that! ‘Ugh, what the heck are they thinking?’ Well maybe, just maybe, we don’t always know the answer to that.

A NWS colleague of mine addressed that vary question: “Some people do [unwise] things in dangerous situations. But it's unfair to tar all that way, and probably counterproductive”. I can't agree more! He goes on to say that there “...will always be some things beyond [Meteorologists]. A person whose boss tells them their job rides on showing up in a flood...I'm not gonna blame them for choosing ‘maybe die’ over ‘definitely living with no income’”.

For me the takeaway is don’t be quick to categorize people. I believe there will be those people who, for no good reason, ignore warnings. But, at the same time, I believe there will also be those who choose not to listen to warnings due to factors beyond us…factors that motivate individuals to make unwise decisions based on what to them are higher-priority concerns. Jumping in front of a moving car is not a wise decision in of itself, but for some, saving a life is more important.

So taking off the tunnel-vision glasses and seeing the bigger picture, does that change anything with our messaging during hazardous weather events? I mean, we can’t say ‘This tornado will be near location X at 8:00Am. Take cover now unless your boss says come to work.’

I don’t think realizing that people have more than just weather to consider drastically changes our messaging, but I do think it changes how we view the very people we are trying to warn. If I see someone crossing a flooded road and immediately come down on them for acting stupidly (without knowing all the facts), how do I expect them to be quick to listen to me next time I warn them of something? It’s potentially counter-productive in that it may cause some people to not be as quick to listen. I mean, if someone at my work constantly criticizes me, how quick am I going to be the next time they actually offer valuable advice? Probably not as receptive. I believe that changing our perspective towards people offers the chance to build trust with them and maintain a good Meteorologist-to-public relationship. And, perhaps, that trust/relationship will lead to good decision-making when other important factors are not in the mix.

Maybe the answer to the age old question of ‘Why did the chicken cross the flooded road?’ isn’t always because she was unwisely ignoring the warnings. Maybe it was simply more important to her to try and rescue her chicks stranded on the other side…

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