From Katrina to snowmageddon: lessons government should learn

From Katrina to the Christmas blizzard to river floods, the government has botched natural disaster relief management. Here's how to do it right.

Rich Kareckas / AP Photo
As snow continues to fall, a snow sweeper clears the accumulation in front of an all-night New York City drug store, early Jan. 12, as New York braced itself for its second major snowfall since Christmas. With better modeling and more effort on advance warnings, natural events wouldn't have to be disasters.

As Mike Bloomberg just learned in the Great Snow Mess of December 2010, people want a lot of services from government when a weather shock takes place. People want the wise government to anticipate how nasty the snow storm will be, to correctly warn the people, and to have the resources to have an ample fast clean up crew ready once the weather event has played out and dumped a lot of snow.

In the real world, this hasn't been how things have worked. Consider the Nashville Floods of 2010. source

"The National Weather Service failed to warn of major flooding in Nashville in the spring until after it had already taken place, and residents did not heed warnings because they didn't reflect the urgency of the flooding, which killed 22 people around the state, a new report shows.
The report released by the weather service on Wenesday found that the agency's river forecasters ignored two models that showed more accurate flood predictions for the Cumberland River. Instead forecasters favored a model that relied on inaccurate and untimely information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The weather service continued to use that data despite observations on the ground that proved their flood predictions were inaccurate."

Updating statistical models to reflect changing realities is more than a nerdy game. If climate change is taking place, then such forecasters should build in some uncertainty into their models and plan for worst case scenarios. They face a tough challenge. They don't want to be labeled as a "Chicken Little" yelling out a worst case scenario every time the rains starts but at the same time they don't want to have any regrets about under-estimating "the big one".
"The report also criticizes the wording of the flood warnings. On April 30, the weather service's Southern Regional headquarters sent an e-mail to local weather offices reminding them of the option to use "Flash Flood Emergency" in their warnings to the public. But the Nashville office never used the term "flood emergency," despite "the many reports of catastrophic flooding, water rescues, and even fatalities" the report states.
And the report found that staffing levels were inadequate for the emergency.

"At critical times, the office was overwhelmed," National Weather Service Director Jack Haynes said in a conference call.
The assessment notes that progress has been made in interagency communication and cooperation. Haynes also said that high-resolution flood maps are being developed for the Nashville area that will show down to the street level where flooding is expected."

Note that last paragraph. This is key example of how information technology can help us adapt to climate change. I expect much more investments and specific climate change adaptation research based on such "pinpoint" technology. The net effect of such efforts is that richer cities who have the capability of investing in such pro-active strategies will have an easier time adapting to climate change.
The full report on examining what happened is available here.


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