Last month’s visit from Hurricane Ida highlighted troubling gaps in the city’s emergency policies as too many New Yorkers found themselves in danger when floodwaters rose. Three weeks after the unprecedented downpour, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented an array of solutions intended to better prepare the city for extreme rain-driven flooding, which is happening more frequently in a changed climate. The plans include an improved emergency-alert system, which features enhanced geotargeted messaging, and enlisting “trusted” community groups to go door-to-door evacuating households that live in basement apartments or other locations that are deemed high risk. But de Blasio also made a rather surprising announcement: The city will hire a private weather-forecasting service to offer a “second opinion,” he said. “Somebody dedicated to thinking about the New York perspective, not the whole-country perspective.”
Surely, having more local eyes on the sky could help the city respond more quickly. So I asked John Homenuk, one of the meteorologists at a local private-forecasting service, New York Metro Weather, how that might work. In addition to publishing publicly accessible forecasts on its website and Twitter feed, New York Metro Weather prepares customized daily forecasts for clients in industries ranging from construction to agriculture that may need specialized recommendations about whether to, say, pour concrete or plant certain crops. As someone who has prepared such briefings, including before Ida, Homenuk says New York City’s response to the storm demonstrates that the problem won’t necessarily be fixed by adding more forecasts. “What happened in the city is that the people making the decisions didn’t fully understand the complexity of the forecast, and the proper communication was not made to the public,” Homenuk told me. “It’s very clear that the blatant breakdown of communication is what needs to be adjusted.” New York City, in fact, already has a meteorologist on staff, hired earlier this year in the Emergency Management Department. But the problem Homenuk describes is echoed in the city’s post-Ida report, which acknowledges that city officials had the right information but were slow to publicly issue emergency declarations and travel bans that “came too late.” The role that needs to be filled, as Homenuk and many others have said, is that of a chief science communicator. “I do think it falls onto meteorologists to take something that’s very complicated and make it simple and understandable. This is a major focus of our company and meteorology in general,” he says. “But what the city really needs is a team of people in place to work with the Emergency Management team and be able to communicate that risk.”
Finding science communicators who can speak directly and openly to the public about threats from mounting climate disasters seems like a tall order; a Carl Sagan of meteorology comes to mind. But here in Los Angeles, where I live, we have the perfect example of such an individual. From 2014 to 2016, L.A. employed a city seismologist, the renowned Lucy Jones, who for decades has broadcasted live from local U.S. Geological Survey offices after major earthquakes, calmly addressing the still-trembling region in patient, jargon-free language. In her civic role, Jones not only briefed L.A. post-shake, she also advised city leaders about building codes, retrofitting programs, and mitigation tools like an earthquake early-warning system — which L.A. was the first U.S. city to deploy — that would prevent loss of life. She has also helped us prepare for what it will be like to experience the inevitable Big One (there’s a 30 percent chance that an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude or higher will strike the L.A. region in the next 30 years), an event no one alive has ever experienced in L.A.
Seating Jones at the table with other city decision-makers proved that effective communication about the systemic changes necessary to confront a looming disaster is just as critical as the immediate post-emergency response. Heat waves, the deadliest climate disaster by far, have prompted some cities to appoint “heat officers” who aren’t just coordinating relief efforts but are also intimately involved in policy-making, including deploying long-term adaptation strategies. As I watched de Blasio’s video briefing when he presented the floodwater report — with some jealousy, I should note, that your mayor still does these daily — I kept thinking about how these broadcasts, as well as the press availability that follows, create an incredible opportunity for the mayor to share the platform with a science communicator who can convey that day’s extreme-weather risk. Very few people obsessively scroll the National Weather Service’s Twitter feed or read the daily forecast discussion (disclaimer: I do this); most people get their weather information from their phone. And as we’ve seen all too clearly this year, that information needs to overcome many barriers, from language to digital access, to save lives. Our elected officials, as well meaning as they may be, need more scientist-humanists in positions of power who can help us connect the dots between never-before-seen forecasts and action on a daily basis, whether for history-making rain, deadly heat waves, or wildfire smoke drifting its way across the continent.