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Hurricane Matthew: What Went Wrong?

Category - General
by Lisa Eifert on October 25th, 2016

When Hurricane Matthew swept through the Southeastern United States earlier this month, it left behind extensive debris, thousands without power, and many people living in shelters. In North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, meanwhile, a total of 17 people lost their lives.

Today’s storm forecast models are more advanced than ever before. So how is it that so many residents were caught unprepared when Hurricane Matthew swept into their towns earlier this month? The truth is that storms are notoriously unpredictable, and while forecasts can help, they ultimately only go so far. Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong with Hurricane Matthew, along with highlighting the single best way to protect yourself, your loved ones, and the members of your community when a storm is on its way.

Understanding the “Edge Problem”

Meteorologists can generally provide an idea of where a storm is going, what area it will impact, and when it will hit. Unfortunately, the “generally” part of that scenario can be particularly problematic. Why? Because as the Washington Post says of our current weather prediction system, “The biggest problem it has is pinpointing and communicating where the storm’s most severe impacts start and stop.”

This is called the “edge problem,” and it often results in communities being completely blindsided when they’re slammed with the worst of a storm. (This problem is not isolated to hurricanes; it’s also seen with snowstorms.)

In the case of Matthew, computer models indicated that the hurricane would merely approach the coast of South Carolina before heading back out to sea and eventually turning back south. The result? More northern areas, which expected to be spared the worst of the storm and the flooding likely to accompany it, ended up being engulfed by it instead.

The issue was further exacerbated by the fact that when computer models did start to point to a shift, many meteorologist remained too uncertain to officially register the threat.

Factor in the media’s focus on what was happening in Florida, and areas now the path of the storm were left with inadequate notice.  In other words, Hurricane Matthew’s forecasting failure can ultimately be attributed to a losing combination of prediction limitations and poor communication.

Correcting Course

So what preventative action can be taken to prevent future hurricanes from following in the path of Matthew? Looking back can help us plan forward.

In the days leading up to the Hurricane Matthew’s landfall, meteorologists called for a worst-case scenario in Florida. Considering the massive devastation the area would have suffered had it ended up in the eye of the storm, preparing for it—whether or not it ever came to be—would seem to be the obvious and most responsible choice. So why wasn’t the same approach adopted when it came to areas further north? Had Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia been as aggressively advised to take preventative measures, the picture of those regions today might be a very different one. The takeaway? At the very least, the adoption of reasonable expectations about the science of weather prediction is a step in the right direction.

But considering that 100 percent certainty is never going to be part of the equation—even as forecasting technology continues to improve—commitment to proactive and ongoing communication also remains paramount. Concludes the Washington Post, “This means becoming masters of communicating uncertainty and identifying situations in which the forecast could quickly change for the better or worse.”

If we accept the reality that forecasts are inherently fallible and that we have to plan for the worst, there’s one more piece to fit into the puzzle. Communications. 

Having a flexible and fast way to alert constituents in an evolving, dynamic situation like a weather crisis is imperative.  A group messaging solution like One Call Now enables you to quickly communicate updates as new information is available.  The two-way messaging capability even allows your contacts to provide feedback to you directly through the application.  Hence you are better able to assess the situation, account for personnel and determine crucial next steps.

One Call Now keeps organizations in touch with their constituents as forecast models continue to change—the only sure way to minimize damage and maximize safety when a storm is heading your way.