Friday, March 3, 2017

What We Have is a Failure to Communicate

There are few sounds that instill a sense of foreboding more so than the Emergency Alert System tones. Our response (well mine anyway) is Pavlovian, which I suppose is a good thing...however, recent events beg the question, what happens when these alert messages come too late or not at all, and who’s to blame?

Crisis communication and emergency notification are continual challenges for city and county agencies because when they get it right no one knows it, but when it goes wrong, the results play out publicly.

Issuing a warning isn’t easy or straightforward. In order to reach people, you need the means to do so, whether it’s a reverse 911 system, the Emergency Alert System, a network of sirens, or some other mass notification means, you need a way of sending a message. Then you have to account for the different languages spoken in your communities, or more specifically, the languages in the area you're notifying. In Alameda County alone (where I live) there are at least 53 different languages spoken; once you’ve figured out where those languages are spoken, you're halfway there. Next, you have to craft a message that concisely gets your point across and does so in a way that works in the languages you need to contact. Finally, when crafting your messaging and selecting the mechanism for distribution, you need to take into account that some of your population may not be able to read, have a hearing impairment, have a cognitive impairment, have issues with mobility, don’t have a computer or smart phone, or access to cable or news radio.

And while you might think that if the process were to breakdown, the point of failure would be in overlooking one of the aspects of communication mentioned above; however, as recent events illustrate (Oroville & San Jose), the delay often comes in hitting send.

Like most things related to public safety, there's a lot of trust involved; but trust is fickle under the best of circumstances, and trust in government even more so. Maintaining that trust requires prudent judgement, especially if you’re the one in charge of making the ‘go / no go’ decision on warning people in advance of an emergency, because what if you’re wrong? What if variables suddenly change, what if the message doesn’t have the intended effect, or people don’t get the message at all?

In 2011 Hurricane Irene did a great deal of damage in the Catskills Region of New York State, significantly impacting the State of Vermont and many other places along the eastern seaboard and Caribbean. However, even in the face of Irene being the 7th costliest Hurricane to spin through the Atlantic, what many took away from that experience was that Hurricane Irene was the storm that wasn't. The Mayor's Office in New York City took a hit, the media took a hit, and the credibility of those responsible for public safety was dinged for over-reacting.

In 2014 Hurricane Sandy was forecast to hit New York...similar warnings were issued by the Mayor’s office, the media, and social media that a Hurricane with significant storm surge was going to impact New York City and Long Island, those warnings largely fell on deaf ears.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Which brings us to the handling of the Oroville Dam Crisis, which is summed up best in the following:

                              KC Green

Understanding that the situation in Oroville was constantly evolving means some slack must be given, with flow rates over the unknown and untested emergency spillway being a giant question mark. It doesn't however change the fact that not four hours before the evacuation order was issued, the public was told that everything was under control...when clearly it wasn't.

To go from 'everything is fine' to having the next communication most people receive being this, is problematic:

A similar situation followed shortly after in San Jose, CA when the Coyote creek overflowed its banks requiring the evacuation of 14,000 people from nearby subdivisions. This time however, instead of being told to evacuate at the 11th hour, the city didn't issue anything and residents are understandably upset.

If communicating risk and managing expectations is what this is all about (and in my opinion, it is), then how do we expect our elected officials and managers to balance between being too 'knee-jerk' to being 'too little too late,' if both risk and expectations are inherently subjective? It feels like a lose-lose situation to me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not begrudging anyone their righteous indignation for how the above situations were "managed"…and I don’t think this is something that should be glossed over. What I do have agita about though, is having people believe that pointing the blame solely at elected officials is an answer that will bring about change.

I believe that improvements need to be made in how governments communicate risk and to be better in transparently communicating that risk regardless of circumstance. I also believe the public needs to take a hard look at what they can do to better prepare themselves in advance of future events. Blaming others for our ills is a national pastime, but when we fail as individuals to examine what we currently do (which is often very little) to what we know should be done, we are dooming ourselves to repeat these scenarios again and again. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Water Water Everywhere...but not a drop to drink

The rainy winter the west coast is experiencing has many in California already thinking about picking up their time honored tradition of watering their driveways, while their sprinkler systems feed their patch of Kentucky Bluegrass. While tempting to do, I would strongly urge us to use the current change in California’s weather fortune as an opportunity for a little self-reflection.

Where to begin? First, no one can see the future, so maybe the drought that has plagued California for the past 5 years is ending in the most biblical of ways, or maybe this is just a blip on the radar. With 10-20 year droughts having been recorded throughout California’s history, our most recent dance with prolonged high pressure is a proverbial drop in the bucket. Then you add in the fact that during that brief 5 year period, farmers pumped so much water out of the central valley that the land subsided 1-2 feet in some places. But don’t worry; we don’t actually know how much water was pumped out of the ground because California doesn’t track that info, all we know is that our cup currently runneth over…so it’s best not to dwell on anything that might point to larger underlying issues with California’s water policies. Also, please overlook the arcane rules that govern water rights in the state, which has led, in part, to the over-pumping phenomenon that is contributing to the depletion of our natural aquifers. And as we marvel at overflowing reservoirs, we can see the gains that many advocates for smarter water policy had made, slipping away as we deal with the juxtaposition of going without, to having too much.

Remember when “brown was the new green?” As cities tried to market dead lawns as a show of solidarity with the broader effort to curb urban water consumption? Remember when there were cities in California whose wells ran dry and the state had to install massive cisterns so water could be trucked in? Remember when we realized that 102 million of our trees have died or are dying due to lack of water, when radio stations would publicly shame the most abhorrent water wasters? Remember when people cared about saving water because it was a precious resource? Yeah, me neither…because when the forecast calls for 10 Trillion…yes Trillion gallons of water to fall from the sky, why would you want to? Instead of conservation, people are worried about uninsured flood damage, loss of life, and infrastructure that's dissolving like cotton candy...and its hard to blame them.

So what now? In the short-term it would appear that we are at an inflection point—the abundance of what was once scarce has brought to light many problems, most urgently problems associated with our infrastructure that need attention…more than attention, they need sizable investment to address the deferred maintenance issues that plague bridges, dams, and levees nearing or past their designed lifespans. As evidence, California is faced with trying to find 66 Billion dollars to address the outstanding needs that have accumulated across its 1400 dams, 13,000 miles of levees, 25,318 bridges, and more than 50,000 miles of roads. And what’s sad and oddly prophetic is that as we witness what appears to be the catastrophic end to the most recent drought, the current situation highlights the missed opportunities and ignored pleas for funding infrastructure projects in the preceding decades that would have mitigated some of the crises we're currently dealing with. 

Which brings me back to water…

Water is something we take for granted because we’ve always had it and then for a few cities in California…they didn’t. One day, they turned on their faucets and nothing but groaning pipes trying to dry-heave the last remnants of liquid occurred, and this is the fate for many more communities around the state and nation if don't act now.

I would like to suggest, now that we're in a more comfortable place with the amount of water we have, that we use this time to continue the dialogue that was started under more dire circumstances. We need to talk about water:
  • ·        How we use it
  • ·        Who gets to use it and how much it should cost
  • ·        Aquifer management and tracking water extraction
  • ·        Water rights and agricultural and urban usage
  •       Aging Water Infrastructure impacts on Public Health
  • ·        Storm water capture and ideas to help keep what we receive naturally
  •       Building water resilience in the face of natural or man-made crises

You know, continue the tough conversations that were started, but this time do it without the pressure of staring down the barrel of a gun.

Finding water issues that need attention isn't the problem, convincing people that now is the time right time to talk about them is. Using the uncertainty that many communities across California faced not even one year ago should be all the prompting needed to continue the dialogue that was started, but I fear that the 'what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger' mindset will sideline those discussions leaving us ever more vulnerable the next time we get parched.