Had a hurricane barreled toward the Gulf Coast this past weekend, news organizations would have covered the impending doom nonstop. Correspondents would have lined the coast while ominous satellite pictures of the monster storm cycled across television screens.

But a no-name storm, every bit as dangerous in certain respects, commanded scant media attention.

Yet the Red Cross is calling this nameless storm the nation’s “worst natural disaster” since Hurricane Sandy. At least 40,000 homes have been damaged, and the death toll has risen to 13.

Some Louisiana residents said they were completely caught off guard by the severity of this extreme event.

“With a hurricane, they kind of warn you. But this, they didn’t warn you,” Jayda Guidry, a resident forced from her home, told The Washington Post. “We just thought it was raining.”

Meteorologists knew this storm could wreak havoc days before the first drops of rain. And they issued strongly worded predictions. But now they are soul-searching, wondering how the message could’ve been more forcefully conveyed and attained greater reach.

Ken Graham, the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office serving New Orleans and Baton Rouge, said that when “even one person feels they weren’t adequately warned or prepared for a weather disaster, we know we have work to do.”

This event illustrates, when it comes to raising awareness of flood events that are independent of hurricanes, meteorologists must become better salespeople and the media more attuned consumers. And better science and forecasting will make the sales process easier.

Forecast of the general flood threat was good, but the event’s magnitude and scope was underestimated

The lack of attention to this event didn’t stem from meteorologists failing to identify the threat or abdicating their responsibility to communicate it.

Graham shared a timeline that convincingly illustrates watches and warnings were provided for this event with ample lead time. Flood watches were issued Tuesday and Wednesday, emergency managers were briefed, and on Thursday and Friday, the watches were upgraded to warnings.

“We began communicating the threat for southeast Louisiana five days in advance of this event, using strong language and leveraging the resources of social media and our partners in local media and government to communicate threats to the public,” Graham said.

Broadcast meteorologists also talked up the rain threat. For example, Rob Perillo, the chief meteorologist at KATC, the ABC affiliate in Lafayette, predicted last Thursday “excessive rainfall” in his market, with amounts up to 15 inches, before the rain began. “I am not liking this setup … could be the biggest tropical rainmaker we see all season long,” he warned. “Be ready.”

While forecasters accurately conveyed the overall flood risk and issued timely warnings, the event was more extreme than predicted in some respects.

The “general stage was set for very heavy rainfall, and this was recognized and predicted well in advance,” said Russ Schumacher, a professor of meteorology at Colorado State University who specializes in flood events. “But we still aren’t at a place where the rainfall forecasts are accurate and precise enough to say exactly where the heaviest rain is going to fall, or how much. And as a result, the forecasts of the flooding aren’t going to be accurate or precise enough to, for example, call for evacuations.”

Graham said the Weather Service is hard at work to advance the science and touted the launch of a new national water model. “As the model evolves, it will give us neighborhood-level flood forecast maps for communities throughout the country,” he said. “This means that for the first time, we’ll be able to visually depict simulations of how the smallest streams and creeks will react to large rain events, giving people a picture of what that 20-inch rainfall forecast will look like at their doorstep.”

The model Graham describes may help forecasters visualize and communicate a pending flood, but only if they deem the model trustworthy.

KATC’s Perillo, in a private message, said some of the forecast models were predicting so much rain, that the numbers didn’t even seem believable. “As a meteorologist and a consumer of information there is some disbelief when models start forecasting a 100- to 200-year event,” he said.

It requires tremendous courage on the part of the forecaster and a good deal of faith in models to forecast an event so outside the norms.

The forecast message may have been diluted

Even if a forecast is perfect, it only becomes useful if it gets into the hands of the people who need it, so they can plan and make smart decisions.

“One thing I noticed was a staggering amount of people driving during and after the event,” Graham said.

Before this flood, it is doubtful that segments of the public received the kind of detailed information that they would have before a hurricane.

Hurricanes, tropical storms and depressions are typically tracked for days, and the media receives advisories on them every six hours. The media know where and when to find these advisories and hang on every word. Information from these advisories then routinely flows into regular reports. “If a depression forms in the East Atlantic, the consumers of our product/stories regarding such increases exponentially,” KATC’s Perillo said.

But the Weather Service has not designed a comparable product suite for flood events that the media has latched onto.

Mike Smith, senior vice president at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, said it “is difficult for the National Weather Service to convey the magnitude of a disaster of this proportion because it did not fall neatly into their product categories so the message could really stand out.”

Even if the Weather Service had designed the perfect flood “product suite,” there’s the question of whether the public would have taken the threat seriously.

“It is not easy to convince the public to get ready for an extreme rainfall event unless a major hurricane is bearing down, because people are conditioned to understand the impacts a major hurricane brings, such as rain sending rivers out of their banks and dangerous storm surge,” Graham said.

The effects of hurricanes, some of the nation’s worst natural disasters in modern history, are ingrained in our memories. And, with their spiraling bands and menacing eye, they have an unmistakable visual presentation before they hit that floods lack.

Some say if the flood had a name, as tropical storms and hurricane do, it would have captured more attention. Storm names frequently “trend” on social media and give the storm an identity, which can make it seem more real.

Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, wrote an essay exploring the reasons “some were unaware” of this disaster, and said because it didn’t have a name, it tops the list.

But Graham isn’t convinced naming the event would have led to greater awareness. “We conducted assessments on several recent flood events, and none of the social scientists on those teams offered a finding or recommendation indicating that naming a heavy rainfall or flood event would have made a difference in people’s level of awareness or preparedness,” Graham said.

KATC’s Perillo agrees that the event would have captured more attention had it been named but worries the forecast information reaching the public is now more watered down than ever before because of how it is consumed. That is, smartphones — increasingly the primary source of weather information to the public — don’t provide the same level of information that human forecasters do.

“Over the last few years in particular, with the rise of smartphone apps, the context of weather severity is completely lost,” he said. “The apps will shoot from the hip with a 90 percent chance of storms when actual coverage is 20 percent, and when it’s actually a 90 percent chance of storms producing 5 to 8 inches of rain, you don’t get that through the app. Broadcasters and the Weather Service continue to lose ground to the smartphone apps and we as a community need to get there in a more responsive matter.”

The national media wasn’t paying attention

The attention paid to this event wasn’t only limited by less-than-perfect forecasts and communication. It was also severely constrained because the national media, in many respects, were tuned out.

As mentioned previously, the national media surely would have covered the storm more had it been a hurricane. But, because it wasn’t, other circumstances got in the way:

  • There was a lot of other competing news happening.
  • It occurred over the weekend in mid-August when staffing was reduced.
  • Shepherd, in his Forbes essay, also mentioned the possibility of media “flood fatigue” because there have been so many lately.

Several news organizations have pointed out the inadequate coverage (the New York Times even wrote a mea culpa) — so perhaps media organizations will be more sensitized to the need to stay on top of such an event the next time. The meteorology and emergency management community can certainly help in this regard by sounding the alarm louder.

Overcoming the challenges

Both Graham and Colorado State’s Schumacher stressed the need for the “weather enterprise” to work together and with partners, such as the media and emergency management, to improve flood forecasts and communication.

“We need to continue carefully analyzing and learning from each of these cases, across all the connected components, and hopefully take away lessons that can lead to improvements in the future,” Schumacher said.

Graham said the public can help the cause.

“Preparedness needs to be an active, ongoing effort in every household to improve our nation’s resilience to extreme events,” Graham said. “We can’t stop extreme floods from happening, but we can improve our societal preparedness and response to improve our nation’s overall resiliency. We can do this if every individual remains in a constant state of readiness. This includes ongoing, heightened awareness of risk in your community, tuning in to weather forecasts and having multiple ways to receive warnings and developing an action plan in advance of any potential weather event so you’ll know where you’ll go and what you’ll do.”