Paul Getty may have been onto something when he said, “I’ve never been one to bet on the weather.” Over the course of the last few years, winter weather is getting more unpredictable – and more dangerous. It’s not merely the weather that’s the problem, but also the ways in which state and local governments find themselves unprepared for unfamiliar weather phenomena.
Based on the Winter Outlook for 2020 produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last year seemed like any other year. Looking at the prediction map, aside from some colder-than-normal weather forecast in the Northwest and hotter-than-normal weather in the South, everything appeared to be pretty much business as usual.
Instead, we had everything from snowstorms in Texas to mid-winter hurricanes in Kentucky. With tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and flash floods ramping up in intensity, the weather is deviating from historical expectations.
Lack of planning and failure to effectively communicate can lead to deadly consequences. Getting alerts to citizens faced with unfamiliar circumstances is critical. Are you ready to help your people evacuate and recover when the next winter storm strikes?
Let’s look at three winter disasters from 2021 to see how outcomes could have been improved when the unpredictable came to pass.
Unprecedented Snow in Texas
February in Texas usually entails mild temperatures in the 50s. But in 2021, parts of the state plummeted to -20 degrees Fahrenheit as an unexpected snowstorm derailed the state’s infrastructure, which was not designed to withstand prolonged negative temperatures. The storm left millions without power, water, heat and internet for days.
"We've never seen a winter weather event like this in the state of Texas in recorded history, that I'm aware of. Our water systems are really built for heat. We saw multiple failure points… Generators are built to run in the middle of the summer when it's hot outside, not when you have five to seven days of extremely cold temperatures," said Toby Baker of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Without a response plan for snow or extreme cold, the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) didn’t take advantage of the national Emergency Alert System (EAS) to send direct communications like cell phone alerts or robocalls. Without power or internet, many residents were unable to receive basic information about boil water notices, heating shelters or updates on power.
Using a multi-channel mass notification system to communicate with residents is key to avoiding mass confusion, maintaining order and recovering quickly. Even in unpredictable circumstances, lives are saved with quick thinking and clear messaging.
Massive Tornadoes in the South
Let’s turn to December’s deadly tornado in Kentucky and surrounding states. Unlike the unexpected snow in Texas, officials in Kentucky knew the twister was on its way and sent alerts to residents hours in advance. Despite this, it was the deadliest tornado in the state’s history, with more than 70 deaths accounted for so far.
Strongly worded tornado warnings from the Weather Service were sent to residents in the storm’s path, giving them updates roughly every 30 minutes. These alerts were amplified online and on television, telling people to take shelter. And while many did, others didn’t believe the messages were specific to them and didn’t take action quickly enough.
Research shows one thing that could have helped emphasize the severity of the situation is including probabilities in weather alerts. This can help build trust in the warnings and allows citizens to make informed decisions about their response tactics.
Residents who receive specific guidance from their local government are more likely to practice community engagement, helping their neighbors to avoid and recover from disaster events. This eases the burden on response officials, who can focus on repairing roads, fixing power lines and other critical tasks.
A White Christmas on the West Coast
Washington, Nevada and northern California received a white Christmas in 2021, much earlier than typically expected. With three feet of snow accumulation in just one night in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, roads were closed for three days and holiday travel became even more of a snarl.
In Seattle, which usually sees Christmas temperatures in the mid-40s, residents were faced with five inches of snow. Much of the city’s public services were rapidly out of commission. The Seattle Department of Transportation kicked into high gear much earlier than in previous years, but even once the main roads were salted and plowed officials were warning would-be travelers to stay home via social media.
One sector hit hard by the storm were people without housing, who also may not have had access to mobile or television alerts. The threat of hypothermia filled shelters and drove home the importance of using widespread warning systems available to everyone.
Prevent What You Can Prevent
Try as we might, we can’t prevent the weather from wreaking havoc. And while we might hope for clear skies, it’s critical to prepare for natural disasters, unprecedented as they may be. Failure to plan can be deadly.
But you can work to prevent the human cost of a crisis. Employ every aspect of your mass notification system to communicate with residents and businesses when they need it most. Sending alerts with specifics like location, timing and event probability helps people make safe decisions and builds trust in the system, making them more likely to heed warnings in the future.
The winter weather in 2021 may have seemed like an anomaly, but it’s likely indicative of what’s to come for many more years. We can no longer rely on the climate patterns of the past to inform us of what to expect each season. When you can’t predict the weather, mass notifications can help you reach people and save lives.
Even if we can make predictions, it’s not enough just to be prepared for a singular event. Once the initial incident has passed, the consequences can last for days or even weeks. It’s important to continue to keep in contact with citizens and keep them up to date on the latest safety measures.
The top priority of any local government is ensuring the safety of its people, and mass notifications can help you improve your response rates and save lives.
For more information or to schedule a demo, contact OnSolve today.