Words Matter With Forecasting Hurricane Harvey

Nerd alert–you are entering by being forewarned.

Often on this blog I write about why words matter.  For instance,if the people who go to work in a towering office building are called heroes for showing up to work but dying from an act of terrorists, then what do we call those men and women in emergency government who go into the flaming wreckage to provide aid?

As a former broadcaster and one who has also worked in politics and loves to read history it probably comes as no surprise I hold tightly to the fact words do matter.  So I have been listening and reading, like most others in this land, to the weather reports about the savagery of Hurricane Harvey.   I have never before heard such blunt assessments and dire warnings.   They were properly used but due to the fact they were even needed allows another spoke of this massive event to be considered–how meteorologists chose their words when speaking to a large and emotional audience.

Unprecedented.” “Unknown.” “Beyond anything experienced.”

When weather forecasters needed to describe Hurricane Harvey’s potential for death and destruction, they stretched their linguistic abilities into new territory.

Here was a storm system with 130 m.p.h. winds — strong enough to topple tall structures — and rains that would be so relentless that millions of gallons of water would fall for days on vulnerable towns and cities.

Hurricane Harvey’s power was so vast that it provided one of the most important lessons of weather forecasting: words matter. They can make the difference between life and death. Residents need to not just hear or read, but to grasp how dangerous the storm will be. Rescuers and aid groups need to know how extensively their services will be needed, and where.

So in one of the most memorable moments in forecasting history, communications teams at the National Weather Service found themselves scratching their heads. They needed new language and a new approach in graphics to capture the severity of the storm.

Officials have been grasping for superlatives. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas called the storm “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced.” Local, state and federal officials have conceded that the scale of the crisis is so vast they were nowhere near being able to measure it, much less fully address it.

Words may escape politicians, but measuring and describing a storm is exactly the job description of forecasters.

“We wanted to convey the message that this is a storm that can kill you,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

While Mr. Feltgen noted there were similar dire warnings for other devastating hurricanes like Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012, Hurricane Harvey stood out. The predicted deluge of up to 50 inches of rain tops what Houston receives in a year.

One thought on “Words Matter With Forecasting Hurricane Harvey

  1. As a meteorologist, I think you hit the nail on the head. Puts me in mind of how Oklahoma City forecaster Gary England, normally humorous and taciturn, was credited for saving untold lives during the 2013 Moore tornado by announcing (paraphrase): “Folks, if you live in Moore you need to take shelter right now, or you’re going to die.” There is a time and place for that kind of apocalyptic language, but as your post alludes, discretion is everything.

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