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'Hurricane Amnesia' Poses Big Risk in Florida

With nearly 11 years since the most recent hurricane landfall in the state, many people cannot personally relate to widespread destruction.

by Harold Bubil, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. / May 13, 2016
Damage from Hurricane Andrew in Miami-Dade County, Fla., in August 1992. (FEMA News Photo)

(TNS) — This is the season when weather forecasters and emergency managers tell Floridians, over and over, that they're at risk from tropical storms.

The problem is making them take the warnings seriously and do things that will reduce the impact hurricanes can have on their lives and property. The effort has become as important as forecasting itself.

The challenge is portrayed in photographs of Florida's beautiful scenery. It's just so nice here, day after day, year after year. And with nearly 11 years since the most recent hurricane landfall in Florida — Wilma in October 2005 — “hurricane amnesia” has set in. People can't see it being any other way, experts say. They cannot personally relate to widespread destruction.

“If you have never experienced it, it is difficult to imagine that happening,” said Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “If you have been through a hurricane or a flood, you know what it is like and you can envision it. We live in Florida and have great weather the majority of the time.”

Millions of Floridians have little or no hurricane experience. For them, the springtime storms and floods in other parts of the country are just reports on TV. The tornadoes that hit Southwest Florida earlier this year were few and far between, and didn't impact enough people to change the overall perception that “it can't happen to me,” said the speakers at the Governor's Hurricane Conference here this week.

Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, only has to think back a few months to when Hurricane Joaquin was pummeling the Bahamas with Category 4 winds for several days in October. Its outer bands of clouds lurked off Florida's southeastern coast.

“I could not help but to walk out of the building at the hurricane center and go, 'Wow, there it is. That's close,'” Knabb said. “I don't know how anyone could look at what was happening last year and go, 'Ehh ... Florida doesn't have a hurricane problem anymore.' What a reminder this was.”

So forecasting and meteorology have become just half of the mission for hurricane specialists. Communicating risk to the public is the other half.

“And that might not even be the right ratio,” said Koon. “Forecasting technology has grown by leaps and bounds. It is a matter of helping people hear that message and take the appropriate action. That is the real challenge."

Forecasters "know scientifically how to make all that other stuff happen. The rest of it is still a work in progress," he added.

Communicating hurricane risk has become a science of its own. Social science is a key tool for “the Weather Enterprise,” which is made up of NOAA's National Hurricane Center, hurricane researchers, county emergency managers, television meteorologists and private weather forecasters.

“How do people respond to the weather-warning process?” asked Dr. Laura Myers, director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama, during a speech at the conference. “Why do some people believe and others don't? Why are some prepared and others are not? What do they hear?”

Those are the important questions as the Weather Enterprise encourages both being prepared and staying prepared.

Hurricane amnesia is a widespread malady, Myers said. “People forget the information they need to take the best action.”

Even in the face of weather warnings, they tend to overlook risks and go about their daily lives, Myers said, producing photos of cars abandoned in floodwaters.

“The psychology of people — they are caught up in what they are doing and don't want to believe it is going to affect them,” Myers said. “'What are the odds I am going to have to do something about this?' Or, they feel compelled to do what they do, like going to work.”

Complacency is another dangerous emotion, and often results from alarms and warnings that turn out to be false.

In response, the Weather Enterprise is honing its message to be clear and consistent, as well as sober.

“What the message is, dictates how people react,” Myers said. “There is a tendency to hype the message to get people's attention. Of course, what that does is desensitize people. So we have to be very careful about hyping.”

The companion to hyperbole is the distortion of the message, which can happen because of the large degree of uncertainty in forecasting a hurricane's path, intensity and effects, such as storm surge.

“We distort the message to try to convey the uncertainty, which only creates confusion for the public,” Myers said. “Can we give them the right recommendations? Can we reach them to tell them what they need to do, how to do it, and get them to take action?

“The benefits must outweigh the costs and inconvenience. People have to receive a cue to action, or a precipitating force. There is a very fine line in trying to convey this information. We have to get people to understand their susceptibility. If there has been a lack of consistent severe weather, it is going to make it hard to get the public to believe.”

Knabb emphasized that residents of interior Florida must learn that hurricanes are not just a problem for people with beachfront property. “The effects can go far inland,” he said. “A quarter of all fatalities have been from inland flooding.”

As director of the National Hurricane Center, Knabb (@NHCDirector on Twitter) is in a position of both leadership by speech and by action.

“We try to get personal about it,” he said, stressing the role of social media in education and awareness. “I live in a hurricane zone, too.” As a resident of Westin, a western suburb of Fort Lauderdale that is 15 miles inland, he has storm shutters and flood insurance. On Tuesday, at the prompting of his wife, he has an appointment with his property insurance agent for an annual policy checkup.

The Knabbs' tech-savvy, 11-year-old son has the task of making a video inventory of the family's possessions for insurance purposes.

It is in keeping with the Hurricane Strong initiative (#hurricanestrong on Twitter) that provides the public with an action list of hurricane preparation measures.

“I don't know when it is going to happen, but the hurricanes are going to come back,” Knabb said, noting that even in a light hurricane season “it only takes one” storm to devastate and kill. “We have to be strong by controlling the outcome, so we survive the event and overcome it.”

©2016 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Visit Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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