We almost always get the same advice from emergency preparedness experts when epic, life-threatening weather is headed our way: Stay home.
It's another way that Western New York is different from the rest of the world, where flooding, mudslides, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes often force people to decide whether to stay where they are and hope for the best or flee for safety.
The footage from Atlantic City, Hoboken, Staten Island and other familiar places last week in the wake of Superstorm Sandy was a heartbreaking reminder that failing to heed weather predictions can have devastating consequences.
That's why I struggle with our propensity to give a communal shrug to weather warnings, the fact that we display a kind of bravado that borders on the reckless in the name of appearing to not be concerned by what could be coming.
Why? Is it a sign of weakness to be ready for a storm? Are a working flashlight and an extra loaf of bread admissions of cowardice or failure?
It's the same characteristic that manifests itself on the roads every year. The first time the temperature drops and a little snow falls, people begin complaining about drivers who have the temerity to go slower on the way to work in the morning. Sure, because who wants to be a little safer when road conditions are potentially hazardous?
Granted, the dire warnings can sometimes be a bit much. A three- to four-minute report leading the television news at 6 and 11 p.m. might needlessly alarm viewers. But in defense of my broadcasting friends, they know that people are talking about the weather and want to know the latest, so it makes sense to lead with what will keep viewers interested.
The alternative is to downplay the approaching conditions or, even worse, to fail to recognize that something dramatic and life-altering could be on the way and be accused of not letting viewers know that they are about to experience a few days that they will be talking about for the rest of their lives. (See Storms, October Surprise, 2006).
Weather forecasting is not an exact science, even though it's a lot more precise than it was 30 or 40 years ago. But if you watch the Weather Channel as often as I do – What can I say? I like the “Local on the 8s” music – you know that forecasters are basing their predictions on the best available information and on years of experience. And when a forecaster says that something bad is coming, it probably is.
If it misses us or isn't nearly what we feared, that's a good thing. Maybe that gives the kids an unnecessary day off from school or we end up keeping a blanket in the car that we'll never have to use. Isn't that better than scoffing at the prediction that comes true and then hoping that the store doesn't run out of generators before you get there?
We often hear references to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” when it comes to weather predictions that don't come to fruition. The implication is that forecasters keep telling us something bad is going to happen, and because it so often doesn't, we start to ignore them. But it's a flawed analogy. The boy in the story is trying to trick people; the meteorologists are trying to help us.
There is one part of that fable worth remembering: In the end, after all the warnings that didn't come true, when something bad eventually happens, everyone wishes they had listened.