However, before I mention these parallels, I want to establish that I trust the expertise and knowledge of those in the infectious disease and public health communities, respectively. As an expert in weather and climate, I often see “arm-chair expertise” or Ph.D.’s from other disciplines, questioning weather professionals that work every day in the discipline. That is not my intent here. Yes, I am a scientist. Yes, I have a PhD. But, no, I am not an expert on Ebola or any of the protocols, so I respectfully leave those critical challenges to the experts.
Instead, my perspective is to examine a couple of parallels that I have observed in meteorology that are worth considering.
We are human
In many recent weather disasters — the Moore and El Reno, Okla. tornadoes, Superstorm Sandy, the Atlanta Snowjam of 2014 — the technological or scientific weather forecasts (our “protocols”) were sound. Yet, lives were still lost and societal activities were disrupted due to human decisions, errors, or confusion about what to do.
As these events played out, questions arose. What do I do if the tornado is bearing down on my house? What is the difference between an advisory and a warning? If Superstorm Sandy is not greater than a category 3, I am safe to stay in New York City, right?
Meteorologists warn repeatedly not to drive through flooded roadways, stand under trees during lightning storms, or exert themselves during 105-degree heat; yet people do them anyhow.
Lesson: Even with sound protocols, procedure, or science, it is difficult to “control” for individual human responses or errors. Public health officials likely will experience these same challenges in their battle with Ebola.
Ebola is the health community’s Superstorm Sandy
In the weather community, it often takes a disaster to awaken public or policy response. But shouldn’t policy prevent disaster in the first place?
Meteorologists know that science, technology, and human input can save lives. For example, weather technology has basically eradicated airplane crashes from wind shear. And Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather, recently documented other “hidden” successes of meteorology that go unnoticed.
The National Weather Service (NWS) knows that it needs faster computers. NOAA understands that it needs to ensure that there is no gap in weather satellite coverage. Managers know that NWS forecasters and scientists need to travel to science conferences to interact with academics and private partners.
Yet, budget gamesmanship, sequestration, and travel restrictions hampered the weather enterprise and future advances. Not surprisingly, it took Superstorm Sandy and all of its tragedy to get the attention and funding necessary to improve our forecast model predictions. And we will probably be a safer nation because of it.
Lesson: I suspect that federal agencies like NIH and CDC have also suffered from gamesmanship. I can’t imagine that they have not been diligently thinking about the Ebola problem for years. However, I can imagine that budget cuts and other stresses on the science infrastructure and funding agencies would affect capability. So now, Ebola is the public health community’s “Superstorm Sandy.”
After Superstorm Sandy, the value of weather science, related technology and personnel was evident. I think we will soon understand that with the Ebola challenge, an adequately-funded public health and research enterprise is also required.
Marshall Shepherd is a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Georgia, and host of The Weather Channel’s show WxGeeks.