Flood Alerts Come Under Question

Weather service realizes it might be overusing the system
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 5, 2021 10:10 AM CDT
Flood Alerts May Have Run Into 'Warning Fatigue'
Headstones in a cemetery that flooded are seen Thursday in Somerville, New Jersey.   (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Cellphones across New York and New Jersey pulsed with urgent warnings of catastrophic flooding as the fury of Hurricane Ida's remnants, carrying torrential rains, approached upper New Jersey and New York City on Wednesday. The first alerts of severe weather blared across millions of phones at 8:41 that night, the AP reports, from the National Weather Service. Officials would issue three more alerts, late into the night, urging people to immediately head for higher ground and to stay out of rising floodwaters. A barrage of alerts from other apps lit up phone screens throughout the night—prompting some to wonder if people were just too inundated with information to take the threat seriously.

Experts call it "warning fatigue," and no one can be sure what role it might have played in a disaster that killed scores of people across the Northeast—many drowning in basement apartments or cars. The weather service acknowledged that alerts at times have been pushed out too often. There's been handwringing over how to get more people to heed them. "It's either they don't believe the information that they’re hearing—they can't verify it—or there's some other reason that is completely out of anybody’s control," said Ross Dickman, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in New York. "It's up to that individual," he said, "but I think we need to do more work in understanding why people make the decisions that they do when they receive information."

Last year, the weather service revamped its criteria, mindful that it might have been overusing the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which broadcasts urgent warnings to more than 300 million devices. The weather service established a three-tier system in which alerts would only be sent out for the most severe flooding. Wednesday was the first time it issued an alert for the most catastrophic level for flash floods in New York and New Jersey, Dickman said. Cellphones are a key tool for informing the public of dangerous weather, including hurricanes and tornadoes. The system also issues Amber Alerts about missing children, and alerts about dangerous people being sought, including a terrorist who set off a bomb four years ago in New York City's Chelsea district.

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New York City's wireless alert system has a million subscribers. If they get warnings about flooding, said Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, "What is it that we actually want people to do? ... Do we want them to go to shelters? If so, do we have shelters for them to go?" A plan should go out with the warnings, he said. Two weeks ago, urgent warnings preceded Tropical Storm Henri, which caused little loss of life, Jeannette Sutton, a disaster expert, pointed out. So when the next warnings go out to New Yorkers, she asked, "Do they take it seriously?" Not James Mielke, a Manhattan video game designer. He "figured out how to turn off those alerts so I could just, you know, not have a heart attack every time the big siren went off on my phone."

(More flooding stories.)

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