Vision and Strategies for a Weather-Ready Nation

American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting – Keynote Remarks
NOAA Deputy Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan
Austin, TX January 10, 2013
Date Posted: March 7, 2013

I am excited to be a part of this first AMS symposium on a Weather-Ready Nation.  This is the first of what I hope will be many through the next years of this organization.  And let me say right off the bat I personally, and we at NOAA fully support - and we will continue through the long term to support - this initiative and the momentum, the cohesion, the progress that we believe that will help us all come together and drive it through our enterprise.  We believe that a nation that is ready, responsive, and resilient to environmental hazards is the nation that is best positioned not just to minimize loss of life in the face of severe events, but to protect core infrastructure, and both sustain and promote economic vitality.  All three of those facets are quite important as we have all seen tragically and sadly in the aftermath of Sandy.

The challenges getting from where we are today to anything resembling that state are daunting.  They won’t be easy to overcome.  And it will take time.  But I look to everyone at NOAA and all of you in this room to invest your time, your talents, and your efforts to move our country forward in this direction.  I would characterize today as a “little bet” on your part – a very modest investment in the time and intellectual energy to come in and engage this topic. As author Peter Sims illustrates in his book of that name - illustrated by the way not just with strange people like weather guessers but stand-up comics [so there is incentive to take a look at it].  Little bets can add up to paying out big dividends if they're well-crafted, skillfully executed, follow through on and repeated iteratively.  So I urge you to take this session and other events during this conference in that vein.  Connect with others here, co-chairs, the speakers, students – people not like you - and see what all the dimensions of this little bet might be that inspire and stimulate you.

So what might life be like when we live in a Weather-Ready Nation? America’s great sage, Yogi Berra, warned us long ago that it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But long before Yogi, society struggled to imagine the prospect of a more weather-ready nation than existed at the time.  In fact in June of 1854, one M.J. Ball, a member of the British House of Commons, testified about the future prospect that was afforded by the recent founding of the meteorological department of the British Board of Trade, and Ball said, “...in a few years....we might know in this metropolis the condition of the weather 24 hours beforehand.” The reaction from the august House of Commons was laughter.  We've come a long way since then. Nowadays folks expect near-perfect precision on the 24-hour forecast and are impatient and a bit baffled about why that is not also the case in something like 30 days and maybe even months in advance.

I think this year’s conference theme provides a great lens through which to consider some of the facets and the challenges we face in trying to build a Weather-Ready Nation: “Taking Predictions to the Next Level:  Expanding Beyond Today's Weather, Water, and Climate Forecasting and Projections.”  That, in a nutshell, I think contains many of the elements we are talking about:  taking it beyond what, for whom, in response to what drivers or opportunities?
On the physical science side of the equation, the microphysical processes, chemical/biological interactions, earth observations, modeling, and advanced computational methodology, taking those to the next level clearly is an important step, and is a significant part of the Weather-Ready Nation initiative.

But I think there is another, at least equally and in some respects perhaps more important side of the equation, and that is the societal response to our environmental predictions or our environmental intelligence.  Frankly, my own opinion is that the harder challenge lies here.  This is the domain that needs more of our attention. It may perhaps be the domain in which a greater opportunity lies.  What constitutes more effective communication? What kinds of closer interactions with decision makers do we need in order to know we are delivering information within the context of the user’s world, not our world?  Not only information that conveys technically, scientifically, soundly the nature of the meteorological phenomena approaching, and possible impacts - physical and other impacts of those weather phenomena - but also makes an impact on the audience, and results in the persuasion to act in an informed and timely fashion?

A technically perfect prediction of an extreme weather event transmitted X minutes or days in advance of an event does not in itself guarantee the results we are striving for—reduction in lives lost, uninterrupted delivery of basic necessities, and faster recovery of communities and businesses.  I think it’s HOW we as an enterprise communicate the threat well in advance to get people to prepare, to have a plan, and to become resilient.  I think Weather-Ready nation also means WHAT we communicate:  information that is meaningful to them; that ties to the motivations, questions, values, issues, barriers that animate them and are shaping their world at that moment.  Our information must tie to that.  Let’s make an impact on that – that informs and moves them in a productive direction.

I think a part of Weather-Ready Nation is also how we as an enterprise communicate the forecasts/warnings in a way that ensures people take appropriate action, seek appropriate shelter, in place or in a safe haven.  It’s also how we communicate after the initial threat has passed, to sound the “all clear” alert.  An example of this can be seen during a tsunami event. You can still have very dangerous currents up to 24 hours after the “tsunami warning” itself has expired.  How does our start the warning/stop the warning nice crisp dichotomy – how does that serve to protect the population in a post-tsunami area? 

And in addition, I think a Weather-Ready Nation implies that we can communicate well and effectively in the calm periods far in advance of a threat to motivate people to take what appear to be elective, discretionary actions that increase their resilience to the next hazard. The best time to prepare for a drought is during a flood. But who is thinking about drought in the midst of a flood? Who is even thinking about either flood or drought on a day like today in a region like this?  Are there things we can do as an enterprise to move the societal conversation richly into the resilience domain?  Not necessarily something we can or are able to do alone, but what is our part in making that happen?  The events of 2011 and 2012 show that we collectively very often got the technical side of the forecast right:  Tuscaloosa, Joplin, Irene, Sandy, other events that we all can name. And yet the casualties and losses were still sobering – over a thousand people lost their lives in 2011.  People remained in harm’s way during Sandy, with 35 deaths associated with Sandy that were surge related.  Damages continue to be toted up and were clearly in double digit numbers of billions - and that’s the direct effects, not the cascade effects through damaged economies, failing businesses that will take years to reveal themselves. 

That was the reality that drove us at NOAA in 2011 to spark some efforts to bring the full community together to examine our own work, foster a deeper conversation with the entire enterprise; to be sure we were including what we weather geeks like to call “non-traditional partners”, such as health experts, city planners, structural engineers, social scientists, in the very core of the conversation, not as reviewers after we talked about our weather things.  All of which was aimed at understanding how we, the enterprise, can see better results at that back end of the equation, not just at the knowledge of the weather impact but the actual behavior, response, and resilience of society.

There's a very long way to go, but I do think we've seen some signs of initial improvement and progress over the past 18 months.  NOAA's demonstration project to providing impacts-based warnings across six of our weather forecast offices in the central U.S. was taken up with a goal of providing more information -  and more focused, tailored information - more information that would make an impact and trigger a persuasive response to the media and to Emergency Managers; to accelerate decision-making and the more timely taking of appropriate actions.  We saw quite promising results from this effort in the April 14th tornado outbreak in the Wichita/Kansas area, for example.  We have also funded since we’ve launched this in 2011 additional social science research projects, all in response to the recognized need -  that came out of the Norman conversation and was followed up in Birmingham - that we’ve got to weave the social and physical sciences together more truly, more genuinely, more richly and from the very beginning of the agenda-setting conversation; to better understand human behavior - risk perception, decision-making behavior - during weather-related events; how to formulate effectively communications, getting past the “I transmit, you receive” model of communication (which can be as simple as assembling an information product and hitting “send”) to a better understanding of what the mesh is, what the connection is that really needs to be made for the communication of hazardous information to be effective.

Something else - that I won’t dive into deeply because others who are speaking later, notably, Ken Graham, will do a far better job than I could ever do - are our six WRN Pilot Projects.  I think these are showing us at NOAA some good early lessons and some initial signs of progress that give me hope for moving forward in the future. 

In addition to an unacceptable number of lives lost, the damage tolls are just huge - $64 billion in damages totaled up in 2011.  We estimate that 2012 will surpass that, with the drought and Hurricane Sandy as the notable drivers.  And, again, much of the damage and societal hardship is attributed to cascading impacts that come after the immediate weather event.  Widespread power losses trigger shortages in gasoline, water, and basic necessities. Transportation systems collapse, cutting off entire communities from the rest of the world and the supplies they need to stand back up. If it can happen inside the New York metropolitan area, it can happen anywhere.

As we saw in Sandy, it took days for residents in places like Hoboken, Staten Island, Breezy Point to get any help from the outside.  It is a reminder to all of us - and this is arguably beyond the horizon of our responsibilities in the Weather Enterprise - but it is a reminder to all of us that, as Amanda Ripley points out in her book, The Unthinkable: look in this room.  If a severe incident hit this town right now we are our own first responders.  I don’t know how many police and firefighters the town of Austin has, but I also don’t know how the heck long it might take for any of them to get around and come to look at Ballroom D in the Convention Center.  So in the aftermath of something devastating happening right outside this convention center, ladies and gentlemen, we are it.

How prepared are we all to be our own first responders – for 3 to 72 hours?  That is what happened in Breezy Point.  That is what happened in Hoboken. That is what happened in Staten Island.  That can happen in Austin.  That can happen in your town.  That is the most likely scenario, wherever you live.  And we don’t factor that into how we think about or work with our emergency partners.

I want to touch on one other area where I think certainly NOAA as an element of the Department of Commerce, but frankly the entire enterprise, one area that I think we can and certainly should think about more deeply and pursue more ambitiously, and that is thinking about the dimension of business resiliency. NOAA has reached out in the last couple of years and crafted some fairly new and novel interactions with companies such as Walgreens, UPS, Vaisala, although Vaisala is arguably a more traditional partner of ours, to identify ways in which we can make sure that commerce either stays up and running or bounces back quickly after a disaster.  This has to touch on things from supply chains, to transportation of goods, to the availability of employees to man the service points and ways to keep services upon which local communities depend up and running or quickly rebounding. One of the best examples of that we’ve talked about a lot in a number of the National Academy sessions on extreme events and national resilience is Waffle House.  It’s present in this community.  It’s a predominantly southern and eastern fast food chain – 24 hour breakfast place.  That company as an enterprise, as a company, focuses very strongly on hurricane and disaster resilience.  They set up and manage their supply chains that way.  They staff and train their restaurants that way.  They exercise it.  They practice it on a routine very rigorous basis.  I don’t mean to sound an alarm and have everyone walk out onto the streets and do your email.  I mean really practice it.  And why do they do that?  Because from the highest level of the company on down they have come to realize that one of the most important first things to help an area rebound after a disaster is that somewhere in the affected area, or as close by as possible, survivors and first responders can get a hot meal.  And they intend to be the guaranteed, “count on us, it will always be us”, first place you can get a hot meal.  They plan and prepare and train and organize to be that resilient element that can help stand back up that community.
 
I’m quite pleased at how much momentum has built up around this notion of building a Weather-Ready Nation over the past 12-14 months, but we have to keep beating the drum.  We have got to sustain the engagement and the dialogue and, frankly, we have to step up our efforts to work with businesses, to work with non-traditional partners, and as we discussed at the National Climate Assessment session yesterday, we also have to step up our efforts not just to have meetings with stakeholders, but to find ways to sit side by side with them more closely, more routinely during events to actually watch and learn and see what problems they are trying to solve in their context and their world when they’re in a problem situation, so that we can reach back and do a better job of being sure “that’s what we are aiming at producing”. And our research partners, even further upstream, those are the problems that they are inspired to tackle in their research agenda.  I don’t believe that happens.  It can start and be informed by meetings, but it takes really a deeper relationship, I believe, to come to understand the other guy’s life, the other guy’s problem. As Mr. Pickens said here, I am told, on Monday, probably everyone who receives our weather forecasts knows more about our business than we do about theirs.  If we really mean to be an impacts-oriented, impact-having enterprise, we are going to need to build ways to change that equation, so that we come closer to knowing as much about them.

We are in a really noisy time and a very noisy world.  Our call for strengthening the scientific and technological underpinnings of the enterprise, improving the nation’s readiness for and resilience against hazardous weather, all of those messages, all those pleas are competing for attention with fiscal cliffs, Euro crises, celebrity divorces, and which latest star was voted out of the dancing competition - not to mention the urgent demands and endless distractions of everybody’s average 21st century American life.  So we are all going to need the most of determination, perseverance, and creativity.  We are going to need to hang in there.  We are going to need to keep tackling both the obvious questions and finding and puzzling over the tougher questions.  What are the incentives for communities to pay attention to becoming a Weather-Ready Nation, especially during the calm periods?  What are the actual incentives?  For the agency, university or business leaders among you, how can we sustain and grow the momentum of this initiative in the face of the financial pressures that our various institutions are facing?  What groups are vital to engage to help secure the future of a Weather-Ready Nation?  I can offer at least one highly confident notion here.  I know part of the answer lies in students.  We need the next generation of players, in social sciences, in civic leadership, emergency management, and in meteorology, but not only meteorology, to get excited and take part with us towards building a Weather-Ready Nation.  So I will echo Ken’s [Carey] invitation and call to join the student networking event at noon today.

There’s no better venue than the American Meteorological Society for building that multi- generational bridge.  This is a fabulous place for old hands and bright young minds to connect, to find common interests and to share their complementary experiences and perspectives.  And that’s precisely the fertile mix that we need to drive this initiative forward and ensure its success.  So please do come to that session.  My good friend, Susan Jasko, will be the emcee and provocateur there.  And finally I hope you all will follow the WRN thread through many more of the sessions here at this year’s conference.  They are heavy on the NOAA side of the team this time around.  We are happy to contribute that.   But we certainly hope that at next year’s symposium this thread will continue and the mixture of forces and players and perspectives will be more diverse. 

We can’t stop events from happening.  We live in the most dynamic country on a very dynamic planet. But we surely can come together and find ways to make our societies more dynamically resilient in the face of those threats.  Thank you again very much.