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Archive for Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tough call

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

September 4, 2008

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Emergency preparedness officials in Kansas and throughout Tornado Alley can share the pain of officials on the Gulf Coast who ordered a massive evacuation in advance of Hurricane Gustav, which later hit with less force and caused far less damage than had been predicted. Now those who issued the evacuation order are under fire from those who could have safely stayed in their homes in and around New Orleans.

Of course, it's easy to say that now that the storm has passed. If the storm had hit with the force that was expected, those who were evacuated would have been praising those same officials.

Instead, they are complaining about the accommodations they were moved to and accusing officials of "crying wolf" with their dire predictions. It will be far harder, they say, to convince people to evacuate next time a storm hits because they won't trust officials urging them to leave.

It's a familiar refrain for local officials charged with deciding when to issue tornado watches or warnings and when to sound emergency sirens. If you sound the sirens too often, people are more likely to ignore them. But if you don't sound them the one time that a tornado touches down and causes serious damage or loss of life, you're an irresponsible fool.

It's a tough job and one that apparently requires a person to have pretty tough skin.

Weather forecasting has improved immensely in recent years, but it still can't predict the vagaries of Mother Nature with complete accuracy. Emergency officials do the best they can to balance the dangers of a storm against the possibility of sounding a false alarm. It's understandable that they would choose to err on the side of caution. It's better to tell people to take shelter or evacuate for a storm that doesn't quite live up to expectations than to issue no warning for one that takes a devastating turn. It's especially understandable that New Orleans officials wouldn't want to take any chances after the Katrina tragedy three years ago.

They missed the mark a little bit this time, but those who complain should consider the thousands of lives that have been saved by advanced weather forecasting and emergency warnings. They can't always outguess Mother Nature, but it's still worth paying attention when they sound the alarm.

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