How Much More Clear Than "Certain Death" Can You Be?

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel has a story up today about how the National Weather Service plans to offer guidelines on changing the warnings it gives for hurricanes and tornadoes, because not enough people are paying attention to them.

Reports the paper:

"It's not necessarily an overhaul. It's just better focusing the information we want the public to really get," said meteorologist Robert Molleda, who is based in the Miami office of the weather service.

Molleda said the change stems from Hurricane Ike, which slammed Galveston and Houston last September. Some of the local weather advisories "buried" information urging people to evacuate, he said.

To which we say: Whaaat?

The Ike warning became legendary: "Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family, one- or two-story homes may face certain death," it said.

How much more clear does a warning have to be? (Putting aside the fact that lots of people survived the "certain death" storm.)

Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center tells Hair Balls the Sun-Sentinel story mistakenly referred to "advisories," which are put out by the NHC. (A corrected version of the story is now up.)

The "certain death" warning did not come from a NHC advisory, but from a "Hurricane Local Statement" given by the local office of the National Weather Service.

Still, he said, the meterologist quoted was not referring to the "certain death" statement, but other statements the local office put out that he felt had been buried or not taken seriously enough.

The NWS issued a report yesterday analyzing why people ignore dire warnings.

It dealt mostly with tornadoes, including the so-called "Super Tuesday" group of tornadoes that slammed the midwest in February 2008.

But it offered several explanations for people refusing to evacuate:

In reviewing the public response, the team found that two-thirds of the victims were in mobile homes, and 60 percent did not have access to safe shelter (i.e., a basement or storm cellar). The majority of the survivors interviewed for the assessment sought shelter in the best location available to them, but most of them also did not have access to a safe shelter. Some indicated they thought the threat was minimal because February is not within traditional tornado season. Several of those interviewed said they spent time seeking confirmation and went to a safe location only after they saw a tornado. Many people minimized the threat of personal risk through "optimism bias," the belief that such bad things only happen to other people.

Maybe the NWS should issue more "certain death" statements. Assuming, of course, there won't be survivors who will then ignore the next "certain death" statement.

Update: Dan Reilly of the local office of the National Weather Service has returned our call; he too is a little baffled by the reference to Ike warnings not being strong enough. "The warnings were pretty blunt," he says.

They are making some changes, though. Now they'll emphasize that the "Category 1" or "2" or whatever refers only to wind and not to the potential storm surge.

As to people who stayed on the island and survived despite the "certain death" warning, Reilly doesn't think that will affect credibility in the future.

"For the people who did say, I think to a man the ones I talked to have said 'I regretted it,'" he says. "Yeah, they survived, but everyone said they would leave next time rather than go through that again."

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