How could so many be so wrong? For 10 days, the agency issued startlingly inaccurate, alarmist warnings about the potentially catastrophic effect of the most serious natural disaster the country had seen in decades. FEMA’s initial response was to distribute a limited number of official handouts from the emergency management division of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Hurricane Florence was expected to bring winds of 115 miles per hour to North Carolina’s coast, while the earlier press release made clear that maximum sustained winds had reached 130 miles per hour. Despite contrary judgments by forecasters, FEMA officials repeatedly added details to this information, calling Florence the most dangerous storm to hit the East Coast in decades.
Without keeping all the data known to them, the FEMA administrators went on radio and television, begging the public to prepare. The scale of damage by the storm remained unknown. As they sent out the first “dangerous situation” public advisories, members of the media did not know that not everyone in an affected area had an electricity company delivering its own power. For those Americans, Hurricane Florence soon became a case of lost power.
The story of how FEMA overstated the danger of Hurricane Florence, and how it could happen again, is a problem for our democracy. This latest gaffe brings into stark relief the country’s increasingly fragile ability to understand things it cannot measure.
In 1992, we implemented a plan to better safeguard the American public from disaster by setting up an agency called the National Center for the Science and Security of Disasters. It used federal data and statistics collected by the numerous federal and state agencies that help us plan for, respond to and recover from disasters. The institution was structured to run the kind of analytics operations most familiar to academics — looking at the weather, geography, engineering, soil physics and countless other categories of knowledge — to make sense of the power and limits of natural systems.
The agency’s ultimate goal was to evaluate the hazards of disasters with sensitivity. The outcome of this future-oriented approach was a long-range forecast, or VEC, for every large hurricane that will strike North America every five years. From there, FEMA took those forecasts and projected what the likely physical damage would be.
The agency’s VEC reflected the approach of a highly respected academic group, which also creates the forecasts. The group, called the Tropical Meteorology Project (TVP), is a part of a massive multidisciplinary research and development center built to harness scientific, engineering and technological resources to forecast disasters in the United States and worldwide.
But without improvement, our ability to estimate and estimate the consequences of a natural disaster is on the verge of self-destruction. The 20 VECs we have compiled reveal remarkable projections of future disasters, but some of these forecasts are deeply flawed. While accurate forecasting might have prevented the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which left hundreds of thousands of homes in New Orleans and Staten Island in ruins, they merely masked the reality of the threats of those storms. Failing to better understand and forecast the nature of future storms will compromise the ability of our society to plan and prepare for the most significant natural disasters we face.
Even if you can estimate the future, there is still no guarantee that you will be right. Before the next hurricane strikes, this fall, we must also ask the right questions about who makes the conclusions about the potential danger of a hurricane and how these conclusions are used.
The VEC work of the U.S. government depends on external sources of information, such as government and nonprofit research centers, weather satellites, the Internet and libraries of historical records. FEMA must carefully guard against internal biases in how the assessments are presented. It cannot answer those questions right now. Until the agency adds adequate limitations to its crisis management presentations, our ability to use potentially devastating news about natural disasters to plan and protect our communities will remain hindered.
This is the urgent problem for the next generation of innovators. Along with providing basic information that gives weather watchers some hints about the path of hurricanes, it is time for FEMA to add the ability to build models for the most likely outcome of a storm. The threat to scientists from government cuts could threaten our ability to study the risks of severe weather.
It is time to tell our leaders that we want them to do better. If this kind of hazardous information continues to fail to be accurate and reliable, that could undermine the ability of private or nonprofit organizations to prepare and do more during and after a natural disaster.
America needs a National Center for the Science and Security of Disasters and we need it now.