After Superstorm Sandy killed 117 people along the East Coast in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a startling finding: The leading cause of death was drowning, and nearly half of the drownings occurred in flooded homes where mandatory evacuation orders were in place.

The finding helped prompt Congress in 2017 to order NOAA researchers to study how the public receives, interprets and responds to weather alerts and to come up with better warnings.

But 2 ½ years later, as climate change is intensifying hurricanes and storms, the warning system remains flawed and the public continues to flout evacuation orders, experts told a congressional hearing yesterday.

“Much remains to learn about how best to communicate forecasts,” Ann Bostrom, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Washington, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Bostrom led a major National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study that last year recommended more research on improving weather warnings.

But with federal funding “highly variable” in recent years, “there is a very large need for additional empirical research,” Bostrom testified yesterday. “Progress has been slow.”

Although hurricane forecasts have become much more accurate in recent decades, many people facing a weather threat get confused and overwhelmed by the deluge of information and uncertainty. Social media has given the public greater access to warnings and forecasts, but it also amplifies bad information and misguided opinion, panelists told the committee.

“We have an extreme challenge because there are all kinds of weather opinions and forecasts on social media,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society.

Shepherd obliquely criticized President Trump for his recent inaccurate claim that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama when forecasts showed it traveling well east of the state.

“When we start questioning the expert forecasts from the National Weather Center and the National Hurricane Center, that undermines and in my opinion jeopardizes the safety of our citizens because if someone now starts to say, ‘I don’t believe the National Hurricane Center forecast,’ and that hurricane is headed my way, they may make a poor decision,” Shepherd said.

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) directly criticized Trump, saying that the federal government’s sophisticated storm models “have to compete with a president with a Sharpie.”

Hurricane warnings also compete with people’s perception of danger and their capacity to leave home, Bostrom said.

“People pay a lot of attention to warnings and official warnings in particular. They’re very important in influencing people’s actions,” Bostrom said. But whether people heed evacuation orders depends on “what they can afford, their own experiences and what their neighbors are doing.”

In late 2018, as the massive Camp Fire engulfed much of Northern California, many endangered residents “never received an official evacuation order,” Bostrom said, noting that 84 people died.

During Superstorm Sandy, many coastal residents didn’t prepare for the major storm surge that devastated communities and killed people.

“People don’t anticipate the dangers of storm surge still,” Bostrom said. “We need to understand better ways of communicating the dangers of storm surge.”

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said many residents in his district outside Houston were caught by surprise last week when Tropical Storm Imelda dumped up to 40 inches of rain. The storm had quickly intensified as it made landfall (Climatewire, Sept. 25).

“The fact that we failed to catch this intensification has had a counterproductive effect,” said Berrien Moore, director of the University of Oklahoma’s National Weather Center. “People tend to say, well, it’s uncertain, or it wasn’t predicted. And that leads to inaction. ... Our models have let us down.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news