Hurricane Irene blasted the East Coast of the U.S. last week. Millions of dollars of damage, widespread power outages, and 40 deaths reported across seven states. Why did so many people die? With any natural disaster some tragic accidents occur. An 11-year old boy was killed when a tree fell through the roof of his house.
But what about the roughly 2/3 of the victims who were being just plain stupid? The people who wanted to watch the hurricane come in, or decided to drive during the storm? Humans have become used to controlling their environment. We flick a switch and climate is controlled (at least at a micro-level with A/C and heating). Annoying insects? Eradicate them with chemicals! We can even maneuver thousands of pounds of metal to carry us wherever we want to go – across town, through the sky, and even into space.
We have forgotten that Mother Nature doesn’t really give a rip about all of our supposed ‘control’, and lately she seems determined to remind us that ‘you don’t mess with a Mom’. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Blizzards.
There were two outstanding efforts last week that I believe may have saved lives by helping people understand that Hurricane Irene was a true emergency that required different action. First was Governor Christie’s exhortation to, “Get the hell off the beach!”. It wasn’t the usual droning on about emergency procedures – the language, and the simplicity of that unfiltered statement coming from a politician actually got people’s attention. But the best action came from Mayor Bloomberg of New York City. He closed the transit system. The whole public transit system. I’m sure the reason was for safety, but I can’t think of a more effective statement that this was not business as usual. Even the most jaded New Yorker had to notice that action.
We have a tendency to issue the same dire warnings and threats regardless of the magnitude of the danger, the equivalent of ‘crying wolf!’. Sometimes when there is a real danger, we need to be creative. Non-traditional warnings are more effective than a laundry list of ‘don’ts’ and actions speak louder than words. Once you have people’s attention you can fill in the gaps of what people should do. But first you need their attention.