The aftermath of yesterday’s snowstorm and resulting transportation debacle in both Atlanta and Birmingham is the genesis for this post. There is currently a lot of finger-pointing going on in social media circles regarding who was at fault, the forecasters or the gov’t agencies responsible for emergency management decisions. From what I can see most forecasters provided sufficient warning but perhaps didn’t put enough emphasis on the seriousness of the situation…i.e. they didn’t cry “wolf” loudly or forcefully enough.

There are likely many reasons for this but one that strikes me is the public’s general disdain for overhyped weather forecasts. The tired – and wrong – arguments that forecasters are never right have led to public cynicism because a particular forecaster didn’t predict “the 1.247 inches of snow that fell in MY backyard”. Thus forecasters in cases like yesterday’s snowstorm shouldn’t be blamed for being cautious and not over-hyping an event.

The underlying problem, in my humble opinion, is the overall lack of an understanding of risk and risk management. Despite a continuing societal drift toward a zero-risk mentality the reality is that there is no such thing as zero risk in life no matter how loudly or vehemently we may demand it. For example we can and have instituted practices and technologies to reduce risks from traffic accidents (traffic signals, speed limits, seat belts, air bags, et. al.) but the reality is that the only way to create zero traffic accident risk is to never climb into an automobile again. Since that’s impractical for the majority of folks we need education on how to manage risks.

Yesterday’s weather debacle highlights this issue. A snowstorm in the southern U.S. is very much a low probability event compared to more northern climes. However such a storm, when it does happen, is a high impact event. How to deal with a low probability / high impact event is a key element of risk management. IMHO the overall lack of education regarding risk management is what needs to be corrected. When people understand that there will always be risk but that risks can be managed the door will be opened to viable contingency plans that all stakeholders can understand and utilize.

Emergency managers, weather forecasters, and the general public must be mentally prepared to dust off and use contingency plans with the understanding that it isn’t “hype” if it will help prevent yesterday’s mess. That means that each of those 3 groups – EMs, forecasters, and the public – must accept responsibility for such preparations and not point fingers at others for a failure to do so. We’re all in this thing together.