After the Disasters, How to Be a Holiday-Ready Nation

Weather took hundreds of lives in a record 12 billion-dollar disasters in the United States in 2011. Internationally, the disaster toll is even more startling. Tragedies have been a commonplace. The record-breaking year is a wake up call to the weather and climate community and to the nation as a whole.
Yet, on a holiday eve, a veteran of some of the worst weather of the year shows us how to give thanks. It was at a meeting, “Weather Ready Nation: A Vital Conversation” this month in Norman, Oklahoma, in an emotional presentation by Keith Stammer. If anyone knows what it means to be Weather-Ready, now, it’s Stammer, the emergency manager of Jasper County, Missouri, where basically a third of the city of Joplin was ripped apart by an EF-5 tornado nearly a mile wide.  (You can listen to Stammer’s description of the ordeal on-line.) Yet here’s how he started his talk:

The big thing you need to understand about Joplin is that at nighttime it is a city of 50,000 people; in the daytime it’s a city of a quarter of a million.  A lot of people come in for shopping, medical, for work. The one thing that translates, into in terms of this particular disaster, was that we are most grateful that it happened on Sunday evening, and not Monday evening, or the totals would have been absolutely different.

That’s a remarkable perspective to take after 162 people died, over a thousand were injured, and nearly 17,000 dwellings were lost. It’s a way to live after a year like 2011.
The discussion about making this country more resilient to the battering and bruising of a violent atmosphere, begun in Norman, will continue at our meeting in New Orleans next month. A Monday lunchtime Town Hall by the same name, organized by the leaders of the Norman conference, will be a highlight (12:15 p.m., Room 238). After Christmas, we’ll report on some of the Weather Ready Nation ideas and comments in The Front Page as preparation for the week’s deliberations.
But before refueling our minds for the Annual Meeting, a holiday is a time to replenish the heart and to experience community, so listen again to Stammer, who ended his talk thanking the 114,677 different people who stepped forward, registered as volunteers, and put in some 697,817 hours of service so far to help Joplin recover (more than a million cubic yards of debris removed so far):

All disasters are local, they start locally; they end locally, they may in fact rise to national prominence somewhere in between as ours did, but in the end, with all due respect, all of you foreigners are going to go away and we’re still left to have to handle it.  I think one of the things that helped us here is the fact that everybody was willing and able to look at this as a local effort. I can tell you that we did not have one organization or person that stood up and said, I’m in charge, you’re not, get over it. It was in fact a collaborative effort from the get-go and remains to be so today.

We are honored to celebrate a holiday with folks like that. We will be proud to make a Weather Ready Nation with them, too.

A Siren Song for Top-Down Emergency-Preparedness Thinking?

Those of us of a certain age and place in the American experience talk a lot about the meaning of tornado sirens–how it defined our awakening to the omnipresent threat of severe weather. Such sounds stick with those of us who have made weather our business–Tim Coleman et al. admit this is part of the inspiration for their history of tornado warning dissemination published in the May 2011 BAMS. The role of community sirens is surging again in research following the horrible tornado disasters of 2011, as witnessed by presentations coming up at the AMS Meeting in New Orleans by Stephanie Mullins (Univ. of Alabama-Huntsville) in the Wednesday 25 January afternoon poster session (2:30-4 p.m., Room 252/53), Kimberley Klockow (Univ. of Oklahoma; same room and day, 11:30 a.m. oral presentation), Cedar League (Univ. of Colorado/Colorado Springs) on Tuesday 24 January (2 p.m., Room 243), and others.
But what we forget is that it’s not just weather experts and the weather-obsessed who respond deeply to the sounds of emergency sirens. Witness the public outcry to a suggestion by emergency managers to standardize times of regular siren tests across a county in northern Michigan recently, reported today in the Petoskey News. Officials were intent on cutting back from twice daily soundings that had become a community ritual. The Charlevoix fire chief told his city council

that many people report that “they don’t even hear the noon or 9:30 sirens anymore” — the exact condition the change in procedure is intended to avoid.

Quite probably true. But people hear even when they’re not listening. Thanks to Dr. Klockow for pointing us particularly to this passage in the article:

Many of those favoring leaving the siren soundings in place pointed to the soundings as a hallmark of a small town. Many said they have fond memories of their kids or themselves being called home for the evening by the siren’s sound. Others said if the siren was discontinued they’d feel like they were losing yet another part of what make Charlevoix unique.