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We all agree: Sandy is more than hot air

By Ann Gerhart,

You think you are entitled to your own facts? Increasingly, many of us do.

We don’t trust government, or politicians, or the mainstream media or scientists with their studies about climate change. We don’t trust fact-checkers.

Well, Sandy has a fact for you. It was right there for days on the satellite image, a menacing white superstorm that covered most of the right side of the United States, from Georgia to the Great Lakes to Cape Cod, with winds and water of historic proportions.

It looks like the first fact most all of us could agree on for a long time.

Confronted with that fact, government officials capitulated to Sandy’s authority before drizzle became torrents and breezes became gales. They canceled Monday. Then they canceled Tuesday.

The people meekly did as they were told, for the most part. Certainly, there were the rugged individualists: the surfers whom New Jersey’s governor called stupid and the cavalier who refused to leave their homes, boasting of all the hurricanes they’d seen that hadn’t lived up to their hype, that turned out to be duds.

But millions along the Eastern Seaboard obeyed government-issued orders to evacuate their homes and pleas to stay off the roads. They bought the risk-assessment, and they moved to lower it.

Why?

“How you talk to people is a vital part of risk-management, way more important than sandbags,” says David Ropeik, a consultant who has trained Federal Emergency Management Agency and other personnel in risk communication.

Hard evidence of a real threat is more convincing than reporters in rain gear being blown about, which FEMA Director Craig Fugate mentioned bluntly in a tweet: “Don’t stand outside in the storm like TV reporters do. They have their job, I have mine, stay safe.”

“What makes it easier for risk communication to be effective is that huge blob on the TV screen,” he says. “That changes everything in terms of perception. It’s no longer abstract. So you react with the deeper animal instincts, one of which is when you can’t protect yourself from something bigger than any one person, we social human animals turn to the collective group, which in this case is government.”

Hard evidence of a real threat also makes the preemptive shutdown easier to declare.

“There will be people who die and are killed in this storm,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Monday during a news conference at the state’s emergency operations center. “We need to watch out for each other, but there will undoubtedly be some deaths that are caused by the intensity of this storm, by the floods, by the tidal surge, and by the waves.”

The Washington region, with its seeming predilection for folding its tent at the suggestion of flurries, has earned a reputation for wussiness. President Obama himself piled on a week after taking office.

“My children’s school was canceled today,” Obama said, speaking to reporters before a meeting with business leaders. “Because of what? Some ice? . . . We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town.

“I’m saying that when it comes to the weather,” he added, “folks in Washington don’t seem to be able to handle things.”

Sandy, everyone seemed to agree early on, was too much to handle.

All the protocols for disaster management are grounded in one simple principle: Public health and safety trumps economic impact, and this time, it wasn’t even close.

The man charged with keeping open or closing the massive federal government in Washington said he learned during a 5 p.m. conference call Sunday of “a risk of wind and wind gust for the region that would be even more serious” than projected (a projection that proved true as Sandy’s direction turned late Monday afternoon in a way that put Washington right in center of the storm).

After that, said John Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, “it was a pretty easy call.”

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