While Hawaii’s recent blizzard is not among the really strange weather that has been popping up in recent years (and expected to continue), it’s a great example of how surprising weather patterns are catching communities off-guard. And to our minds, it raises questions about what local emergency managers should be doing about this trend.
There’s no doubt that crazy weather is creating emergency conditions in odd places around the US. Whether it’s 95+ degree days in Caribou, ME (while the rest of the country was cooler), extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest, sub-zero temperatures in Texas, or tornadoes in Washington State, the weather has dealt us some pretty severe blows recently. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021 has had the deadliest weather for the 50 US states since 2011. And that was before this weekend’s tornado disasters in Kentucky and other states.
Although it’s impossible to attribute climate change to any one event, hundreds of studies confirm that extreme weather is made more likely by the increasing temperature of the earth. And while most of the impacts result in heat waves, drought and knock-on effects – such as wildfires – the research also attributes extreme cold and rain events to global warming.
Our focus in this article is on weather that is both extreme and generally unlikely in your specific part of the country. As emergency managers and public safety officials, the increasing occurrence of extreme weather is not new to you. But have you considered preparing your citizens for extreme weather that seems unlikely in your area?
We did a quick survey of 50 county EMA websites to see which kinds of events emergency management agencies offered information on. Not surprisingly, there was a distinct tendency to talk about events that were more likely in their specific areas (hurricanes in the southeast, tornadoes in the southwest and snowstorms in the northeast and midwest, for example.) While this makes perfect sense, we want you to consider how providing information on crazy weather could serve your community.
First, recognize that extreme and unusual weather can happen anywhere. And because most people are not prepared, it can be especially deadly. For example, consider the Pacific Northwest, where temperatures of up to 116 degrees killed hundreds of people this summer. While that kind of heat is easily dealt with in Arizona, many people in the Pacific Northwest don’t have air conditioning and are unprepared for the heat.
It may seem odd to warn your citizens of heat waves in the north, deep freezes in the south and tornadoes in New England, but every disaster is statistically unlikely for most communities, and statistically likely to happen somewhere. So offering information on preparation makes sense.
Second, realize that just helping people think about the possibility of unusual extreme weather can help them prepare. As FEMA puts it: “…people actually respond in a generally adaptive manner when disasters strike. Adaptive response is often delayed because normalcy bias delays people’s realization that an improbable event is, in fact, occurring to them.”
In fact, mental preparation is the beginning of actual preparation. Referring to last winter’s deep freeze in Texas, Samantha Montano, professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said it this way:
When you tell people in Houston that there’s a hurricane coming, people know what that means. …In this situation, from what I’m seeing so far, I think there was a lack of depth of knowledge about, “What does that mean that it’s going to be cold? What do I need to do?”
Third, think about creating some message templates for unusual weather and related events for your area. You could ask your peers in other regions of the country, for example, to share what they use for events that are much more common where they live. And offer them the kinds of messaging you use for the events that you’re most familiar with. Hyper-Reach and some of our competitors provide ways you can store those templates to easily create messages when those rare events do come to your area.
Finally, consider the PR value of highlighting rare events. As marketers, we know the attention-getting value of the unusual. For example, we recently noticed a billboard here in Virginia for the Great Shakeout, and it got our attention precisely because earthquakes are pretty rare here and generally not very big.
Imagine if you offered a “blizzard preparation kit” in Louisiana or a fact sheet on heat waves in Alaska. A press release on these – or similar – topics are just the thing for a local media outlet with a slow news day. And even if it just gets your agency a little more attention, that’s not a bad thing.
Since emergency preparedness kits are not typically disaster-specific, there’s no harm – and possibly much to gain – from using these events to get your citizens motivated to be prepared.
Of course, you can also use this tactic to promote signing up for emergency alerts. And that’s a good thing, too.
Historically, when emergency managers are doing a risk assessment, they’re looking backwards: Does your community have a flood risk, or a tornado risk? That doesn’t work with climate change. Just because a certain hazard hasn’t been a problem for a community historically, doesn’t mean that hazard is not going to be a huge problem in the next few years—or even now. – Susan Montano, professor, emergency management, Massachusetts Maritime Academy.