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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

COLUMN: Hurricane Fatigue

Causes and Effective Outreach

Colorado State University, a notable forecaster of hurricane activity, has reported that they anticipate a well above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States coastline and in the Caribbean in 2024.  Each year it is a difficult task for emergency responders to motivate citizens to prepare and take notice.  This forecast makes their work more essential than ever this year. 

Fortunately, the National Weather Service (NWS) shares a comprehensive list of State Safety Campaigns, to include several Hurricane Preparedness/Awareness Weeks through the month of May.  As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NWS also leads the National Hurricane Preparedness Week.  These are amazing and robust programs to educate and inform the American public.   

Unfortunately, as the probability for hurricanes increases, so do reports of hurricane fatigue.    

Hurricane fatigue is a form of emotional exhaustion that can reshape how people make choices regarding their preparation.  Hurricane Fatigue is a close cousin to complacency (a feeling of security, often unaware of potential danger) and apathy (a lack of interest or concern; indifference).   Those are tough hurdles to overcome when the stakes are high.  In order to combat these challenges, it helps to understand the causes of hurricane fatigue and effective outreach to address it. 

Causes 

Stress.  We all feel stress at some time or another.  Significant stress can lead to a breakdown in communication and listening.  In particular, individuals directly impacted by natural disasters in the past may be feeling a strong sense of grief, panic, loss, fear, and sadness. 

Time.  According to WordsRated, a research team, “One study finds that 45% of a person’s time awake is engaged in some kind of listening, which amounts to around 7.58 hours per day for US citizens.”  The competition for what we listen to far exceeds our capacity.  For those who have heard hurricane warnings many times before, the old messages do not compete well for our time.   

Money.  The cost of gas is up.  Mortgage interest rates are on the rise.  The average price of a simple loaf of bread is now $2.54.   It is a tough sell to ask consumers to invest in preparedness and mitigation on top of all that.    

Cry Wolf.  The children’s fable warns us against people who exaggerate something or raise false alarm.  Right or wrong, when individuals and communities in hurricane prone areas are told the same thing year after year, but have not experienced a hurricane in many years, their attention and their interest wanes.    

Trust. According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in government is near historic lows.  Whether at the local, county, state, tribal, or federal level, this is a legitimate concern and challenge.  Even if we capture their time and attention, without trust, little can be accomplished.   

Competing Priorities.  Life is not getting any easier.  When any given day we are focused on our jobs, medical appointments, running errands, getting the kids to soccer practice, and trying to figure out how everyone can be at the dinner table at the same time, there is not much bandwidth left over for hurricane preparedness.  Moreover, even within health and safety warnings we compete with the environment, housing, homelessness, health, political decisions, and so much more.  It is tough to compete.   

Effective Outreach 

With an understanding of these challenges and the causes of hurricane fatigue, complacency, and apathy, we are better equipped to develop effective outreach.   

Balance Fear.  Too much fear can cause your audience to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, leading them to reject the message. Too little fear can cause your audience to be complacent and may lead them to disregard your message. A solid way to address this is to identify the threats, quickly followed by solutions.  This should be factual and rational, but not sensationalistic.   

Small Chunks.   Outreach is not a one and done process.  Attention spans have their limits.  Packaging our messages and warnings in smaller portions make them more digestible and actionable.   

High Water Marks.  To help raise awareness of flood risk, NWS began a project in 2006 to install High Water Mark signs in prominent locations within communities that have experienced severe flooding.  A high-water mark is the level reached in a particular place after flooding.  These striking visuals  are compelling evergreen visuals that remind individuals of the risk without the constant barrage of messages.   

Success Stories.  We all want to succeed.  When shown meaningful results that our neighbors achieve, we are more likely to follow in kind.  If flood insurance saved their business, we are more likely to consider.  If having a family rally point saved them angst, we are more inspired to do the same.  The key is to track, cover, and distribute these successes.    

Financial Preparedness.  The Ready Campaign shares a plethora of ideas for how individuals and families with very little money can still make low-cost decisions to make them measurably safer. In addition,  Operation HOPE and FEMA have been regularly collaborating to build financial preparedness through the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK).  This kit has countless great ideas that communicators at all levels, public and private, can leverage.    

Trusted Messengers.  Since the trust in government is low, the government cannot be the only voice.  Faith-based organizations, non-profits, the private sector, neighborhood watches, and more can and should be empowered with data and material that they can share with their stakeholders.    

Targeted Outreach.  Instead of going a mile wide and an inch deep, we can consider targeting one at-risk community at a time with all available media and mediums to motivate meaningful preparedness.  Those who face the greatest threat with the least resources are more likely to listen and act. 

Social Media.  Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) are not the panacea for all social media communications.  For example, the NextDoor social media platform is specifically designed for neighbors to help neighbors in a trusted environment for advice and feedback on issues that impact the community, like disasters and public service.  In addition, messages in NextDoor can be pushed by county, the same level as federal disaster declarations.  In social media, one size does not fit all.   

Drumbeat.  The hurricane season is long.  These important preparedness and awareness weeks are a vital kick-off to the season.  But it is just the beginning of the season.  Effective outreach continues every day, year-round.  You may not connect today.  But there’s always tomorrow.   

Preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation are a marathon, not a sprint.  Taking the time to implement a few of these outreach strategies, over time, can make a difference. 

author avatar
Dan Stoneking
Dan is a strategic communicator. He is a writer. His expertise is born from experience, to include his role at the Pentagon upon the attacks of 9/11; as lead spokesperson for the National Guard in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina where he represented 54 states and territories; responding to the earthquake in Haiti where he helped establish the first-ever international joint information center; creating a coalition with the private sector to implement the first-ever National Business Emergency Operation Center; voluntarily deploying to Puerto Rico within hours of Hurricane Maria’s impact as the lead spokesperson, and much more. Presently, Dan is the Owner and Principal at Stoneking Strategic Communications, LLC. Previously, Dan served as the External Affairs Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 3, where he led an award-earning passionate team to improve information sharing and coordination between FEMA and the American public, to include media, private sector, as well as local, state and government officials during disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts. As Director, he led his team through countless disasters, the Papal Visit (2015), the Democratic National Convention (2016), and the response to the Jan 6, 2021, attacks on our Nation’s Capital. That position followed and built upon a career in both the corporate and government arenas focused on strategic and crisis communications, to include roles at FEMA Headquarters as Director, Private Sector and Deputy and Acting Director of Public Affairs. Graduating from the University of New Hampshire, with a Bachelor’s in Interpersonal Communications, he later returned to the same campus and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching (Secondary English). Dan is a retired Army Officer and he taught High School English for two years. He is also the author of Cultivate Your Garden: Crisis Communications from 30,000 Feet to Three Feet, 2024. Dan lives in West Chester, PA with his daughters, Ivy Grace and Chloe Lane and their puppy, Fiji Isabella.
Dan Stoneking
Dan Stoneking
Dan is a strategic communicator. He is a writer. His expertise is born from experience, to include his role at the Pentagon upon the attacks of 9/11; as lead spokesperson for the National Guard in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina where he represented 54 states and territories; responding to the earthquake in Haiti where he helped establish the first-ever international joint information center; creating a coalition with the private sector to implement the first-ever National Business Emergency Operation Center; voluntarily deploying to Puerto Rico within hours of Hurricane Maria’s impact as the lead spokesperson, and much more. Presently, Dan is the Owner and Principal at Stoneking Strategic Communications, LLC. Previously, Dan served as the External Affairs Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 3, where he led an award-earning passionate team to improve information sharing and coordination between FEMA and the American public, to include media, private sector, as well as local, state and government officials during disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts. As Director, he led his team through countless disasters, the Papal Visit (2015), the Democratic National Convention (2016), and the response to the Jan 6, 2021, attacks on our Nation’s Capital. That position followed and built upon a career in both the corporate and government arenas focused on strategic and crisis communications, to include roles at FEMA Headquarters as Director, Private Sector and Deputy and Acting Director of Public Affairs. Graduating from the University of New Hampshire, with a Bachelor’s in Interpersonal Communications, he later returned to the same campus and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching (Secondary English). Dan is a retired Army Officer and he taught High School English for two years. He is also the author of Cultivate Your Garden: Crisis Communications from 30,000 Feet to Three Feet, 2024. Dan lives in West Chester, PA with his daughters, Ivy Grace and Chloe Lane and their puppy, Fiji Isabella.

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