If it weren’t such a serious matter, I would have been tempted to laugh when members of the “Blame Everything on Obama” crowd criticized the president for overhyping the approach of Hurricane Irene this past week.
Now, as the death toll mounts and the catastrophic effects of the storm in such unlikely places as Vermont and New York are becoming clear, I wouldn’t be surprised if those same voices turn around and criticize him for not doing enough to warn the public.
Such is the dilemma faced not only by the president, but by officials at all levels of government before weather events such as hurricanes and snowstorms, which can sometimes be predicted days before they strike.
Cry “wolf” too many times, like the boy in the fable, and people will stop taking you seriously. On the other hand, fail to provide adequate warning, especially for an event that might have been predicted, and the consequences could be much more serious, even deadly.
When I was in charge of public information for Loudoun County, my first instinct often was to be skeptical when reports of possible catastrophic weather events started emanating from the Office of Emergency Management. Like many people with a background in journalism, my initial reaction often was to question such reports. “Oh, it won’t be that bad,” my optimistic side would think.
While a healthy skepticism may be a good trait for journalists, it is problematic for emergency management professionals, who can’t afford to be caught with their guard down. They have the very difficult task of ascertaining the actual dangers in any given situation. Reflexive optimism or pessimism won’t do; they have to sort through the available information and strive to be as realistic as possible.
In my opinion, Loudoun County has a very competent team in its Office of Emergency Management, led by coordinator Kevin Johnson and deputy coordinator Jeff Fletcher. I always enjoyed working with them, because they understood the importance of striking an appropriate balance when issuing public statements as potential emergency situations unfolded.
Our goal was to give complete information so the public could prepare for whatever might occur, without creating undue alarm or, worse, panic. We couldn’t control the accuracy of weather forecasts, but we did try to help people prepare for the most likely scenarios.
Two events in recent memory illustrate the perils of appearing to be unprepared for a disaster, natural or manmade – Hurricane Katrina and the massacre of 32 people by a gunman at Virginia Tech.
Officials at all levels of government – including President Bush, the governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans – received heavy criticism for their lack of preparation for and inadequate response to Katrina.
Since then, no public official can afford to take a chance on seeming to be unprepared for a large-scale tragedy. Since hurricanes can be tracked for days before landfall, and since our experience with Katrina makes it easier to visualize a worst-case scenario, officials have every incentive to err on the side of being overly cautious.
Virginia Tech officials were criticized for failing to close the campus after the first two murders were discovered, and for being slow to communicate information about those crimes to students, faculty and staff.
While I feel that the criticism in that case amounts to 20-20 hindsight, there is no question that the mass shootings at Tech changed expectations for how colleges and universities must prepare for and respond to such an event. It’s hard to imagine a college now that doesn’t have an emergency alert system, or that would fail to use it when a potential emergency presents itself.
Both these events have changed the way officials prepare for emergencies. Last month, I was in Blacksburg just after the Virginia Tech campus was shut down after three teenagers thought they saw someone with a gun. An over-reaction? Hard to say.
I have to admit, my eyes rolled a little last week when my wife received a call from our son, saying that the William and Mary campus was being evacuated because Hurricane Irene was on the way, and widespread power outages were expected.
Well, guess what? There were widespread power outages lasting several days. In retrospect, I’m glad college officials made the decision they did. It was a lot easier for the students to evacuate before the storm than it would have been after the power went out, leaving dorms and dining halls without electricity.
It’s a call that is tough to make, and they got it right. And although the weather forecasts in some areas were off, public officials generally did a good job of preparing the public for Hurricane Irene.