The New Hurricane Landscape and Where Your Preparedness Plans May Be Falling Short
June 1 is a familiar date for those living along the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It marks the traditional start of hurricane season, a period that historically runs from June through November when hurricanes tend to form and have the potential to impact these areas of the US. However, people living in these regions know that seasonal activity has changed over the years. In 2021, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) will start issuing tropical weather outlooks on May 15, a full two weeks earlier than previous years. We are also not that far removed from the devastating 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, the most active season on record, producing 30 named storms. Both of these indicators serve as a reminder that while the storm frequency and season length may be changing, we can no longer plan and prepare like in previous years. With populations rising; environmental landscapes in motion; and storms increasing in frequency, intensity, and cost, storm preparedness also has to change.
Here are three key steps you can take now to understand this risk, prepare for the inevitable, and act immediately:
Change your understanding of today's storms
Ready field teams for deployment
Help the public understand their risk
Change your understanding of today's storms
Our understanding of these storms is based on history; yet, as we've noted, the storms we are experiencing today are not the same as the ones we experienced yesterday. This change means that, fundamentally, our planning and preparedness need to change. We can't rely on our historic knowledge alone because it simply doesn't apply in the same way as it did before. We need to plan for storms as they exist today, not based solely on history, and we need tools that allow us to augment and reset our understanding if we are to be prepared for the storms of tomorrow.
Weather forecasting continues to improve, and early warning is key to saving lives during a hurricane. Storms are dynamic and ever changing in intensity, direction, and the wrath they impose. Each moment that passes presents us with a new scenario that could change the operational plan. Tools that provide location intelligence, like geographic information system (GIS) technology, allow us to model and analyze who and what might be impacted to better understand the scope and scale of the response needed for the approaching storm. With this capability, you can take the real-time storm track, the projected wind field, the forecasted precipitation accumulation, or the potential storm surge and gain immediate insights regardless of your historic knowledge. You'll understand what it means for you in today's world and be able to estimate the resource requirements needed to respond when the storm makes landfall. Start by accessing readily available real-time data for authoritative providers and layer that on top of demographics and infrastructure data you have on hand, so you can assess your operational plan as early as possible.
Hurricane Aware from Esri's Living Atlas of the World provides live hurricane tracking for community awareness within the United States. Explore the app.
Ready your field teams for deployment with mobile applications
When the storm does make landfall, time is of the essence, and you have to be ready with tools and solutions that work in this austere environment.
Responding quickly with real-time feeds of information to guide your efforts is crucial to the overall success of short-term recovery efforts—especially when it comes to documenting and submitting the initial damage assessment. And real-time feeds are only available through connectivity to the field.
With the evolution of disasters becoming increasingly complex, we shouldn't count on power and Internet connectivity to communicate, collaborate, or collect data. In this digital age where everyone has a smartphone, responding teams and partnering agencies should put this widely available tech to work. Acting similar to handheld computers, smartphones do not require a cellular connection to collect data. With the ability to capture photographic evidence and, with field app configurations, survey and document property damage, these everyday devices become powerful tools that can provide you with an authoritative damage assessment.
You also need applications to give your teams the ability to analyze that data. What areas did we miss? Where should we prioritize community resources and distribution centers? Have we reached the reporting threshold for a declaration? What are the demographics, primary languages, and characteristics of the survivors so we can adjust our recovery plan? Analysis is the most critical part of a successful response and recovery effort. There are lots of tools to collect data—but teams need to have the ability to analyze the data and understand what it is telling them to successfully manage short-term recovery when the storm passes.
Help the public understand their risk
The final area to focus on is the ability to share your newfound understanding of the new normal with the citizens in your community. As individuals and families, they have the ultimate responsibility to develop personal plans and take action that can save their lives. To help them understand the risk they face and truly have them take action when needed, they must have context. Think about someone asking you to do something out of the ordinary. Would you do it without context and understanding of how it would benefit you? Words can be powerful, and pictures can make an emotional connection, but maps provide context for the words and pictures to make them relevant and personally beneficial. It personalizes the impact—to their home, school, church, and community.
Real-time digital maps can put evacuation zones in perspective of a person's address. Maps have the succinct ability to say, "you are in an active evacuation zone, and the storm surge is expected to reach your home." Maps are powerful and immediately useful, and they can help citizens know when and where to take action. The work your team is doing to monitor, understand, and forecast the storm's impact should and can be shared with your community and, ultimately, gives you an authoritative voice. Tell them where evacuation zones are; identify road closures and a safe path to shelter; and, additionally, detail where those shelters are, what is their capacity, and if they allow pets and have the needed provisions. Help them understand the severity and the direct impact, within the context of a map.
Remember, the storms of today and the world we live in as a whole are not like they once were. Don't assume your residents will know how they will be impacted. They are counting on you to keep them safe, so take time to provide maps that work online and are accessible on any device—smartphone, tablet, or PC monitor—and allow the app to use their location. You can then present them relevant information based on their location and filter away the noise that can lead to chaos.
Building resilience for the next storm
A changing climate means we will continue to see more complexity than ever before, and our preparedness efforts must change as well. Response efforts have to shift and become dynamic; agile; integrated; digital; and, most importantly, a true reflection of real-time activity.
Download the ebook, Real-Time Emergency Management Operations, to see how to modernize your agency for a more efficient response.
About the Author
Ryan Lanclos is the director of public safety solutions at Esri. He is responsible for strategic initiatives across public safety and national security, is Esri’s a subject matter expert for emergency management and humanitarian response, and leads Esri’s Disaster Response Program. Before Esri, he was the first State GIO and adviser for the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council in Missouri, and he served as the director of state and local government for the nonprofit NAPSG Foundation.
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