Bryan Norcross of The Weather Channel and Hurricane Andrew fame posted this excellent column on his Facebook page this morning.  It was also published in Crain’s NewsPro magazine.   An important discussion on hurricane cycles and the vulnerability of the coasts to tropical storms, related to some of the discussions we had at SRECA this week.

“Hurricanes are not what they used to be. If your parents or grandparents grew up on the Northeast coast, ask them about the great storms of 1938, 1944, and 1960, not to mention the six-storm barrage in 1954 and 1955. And if they grew up in Miami, they might have lived through the eye of a hurricane coming directly over downtown six times in the 20th century – the last time in 1964. And that doesn’t include Andrew, Wilma, or the monster storms of the late 1940s. Hurricanes used to be really bad.

If you just look at the strongest categories (Cat 3 and above), which cause some 80 percent of the damage, fewer than one-third as many made landfall in the United States in the last 50 years than in the 50 years before. A stunning change.

But, most people don’t feel like the weather is getting calmer. After all, seven of the top ten most expensive hurricanes in the record book have hit in the last ten years, and nine of the top ten in the last 25 years.

It’s easy to explain. Mother Nature’s hurricane-output cycle has its ups and downs, and a lull came along in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s – Hurricanes Frederic, Hugo and Andrew notwithstanding. At the same time, Americans became older, richer and more conspicuous consumers. The net result was exponential growth along the coastline – a construction frenzy, mostly without hurricanes in mind. Add in the expensive cars and gadgets of modern life, and the damage potential has skyrocketed.

Multi-story houses with big bay windows, fancy fixtures, and rooflines that catch the wind came into fashion, replacing the squat but strong homes with terrazzo floors that the wind went over and around. And worse, lighter, cheaper, and weaker materials went into most of the buildings, no matter the price point. These buildings crowd our coastline today.

Hurricane-threat alerting and disaster communications are also not what they used to be.

There are far more people at risk now than when storms were more frequent. At the same time, communications technology has advanced in ways we couldn’t imagine 20 years ago, yet the result is a fractured system for delivering critical information. There are pieces of the emergency message spread across the media landscape. However no entity in the system has the ability and credibility to craft a complete and actionable message for residents in the threat zone.

Before the modern era of instant communications, widespread mistrust of government, and the flood of uninformed opinions on television and online, emergency forecasts and
instructions were understandable and credible because they were simple. When the mayor said, “We’re not sure exactly where it’s going to hit, but we have to get prepared,” nobody was surprised. Nobody expected a precise forecast. Uncertainty was intrinsic to people’s understanding of weather forecasts in general, long before there were cones of uncertainty on television.

Radio and television stations of the pre-Internet, pre-Telecommunications-Act-of-1996, pre-corporatization era were often credible and robust news organizations full of people with long pedigrees in local coverage. They were the natural conduits for local emergency instructions.

Today, scientifically unsupportable promises of accuracy and reliability from the superlative-obsessed electronic media are the norm. And worse, far fewer journalists with local knowledge, perspective and credibility populate newsrooms sliced thin by market realities and highly leveraged distant owners. At a time when the magnitude of the threat is escalating due to the coastal population explosion, the media’s ability to digest the information and craft a coherent and convincing message is markedly reduced.

Even a routine advisory from the National Hurricane Center is a data dump of such proportions these days that few broadcast organizations can sort through it, digest it, and understand it, let alone convey it along with the even more important emergency instructions from local officials. Even if the media were at its previous full strength, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to congeal the torrent of forecast and emergency information into a consistent and actionable bottom line.

In the critical days leading up to a hurricane hit, when decisive action can dramatically change a family’s post-storm reality, the media is a cacophony of fragmented messages and peripheral opinions.

Mother Nature is partially to blame for this dysfunction, of course. If she was producing hurricanes like she did in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, we would have had more Katrinas and Sandys where the toll in lost people and property was culturally unacceptable, especially given the stunning forecast accuracy delivered by modern meteorological science. If our grandparents’ hurricanes had kept coming, we can hope the situation would have self-corrected. The question is, can we do better before they return?”