Forecast calls for controversy in severe weather safety

By: Dr. Josh Eachus

Hard to believe student safety could be a matter of controversy. However, the last few severe weather seasons have hinted at a developing problem. School closures are being issued days in advance of possible severe weather.

As a meteorologist, I am appreciative of the heightened awareness this signals and the attention to weather it encourages.  As a weather communicator and private citizen, I have a litany of concerns that we need to discuss.

In just the last few years, schools in my local area have begun closing due to threats of severe weather. As it turns out, this is also happening in many other regions around the United States. While there is no hard and fast rule, any “enhanced” or certainly “moderate” (high N/A here) risk of severe weather has prompted reaction in southeast Louisiana.

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“Back in my day…” You are right; prior to the last few years, there is not much precedent for closing schools due to severe weather. It did not happen to me while growing up in Pennsylvania. I never witnessed it covering weather in Ohio and West Virginia. Nobody here in Louisiana and Mississippi can recall such a case; nor can friends in the news industry that grew up in “tornado alley” states such as Texas and Oklahoma. We had tornado drills. We left windowed classrooms, huddled in interior, concrete hallways and covered our heads. Fortunately for me, our practice was never needed, but I would hope that in an actual event, it would have played out similarly.

So why is this happening now? My discussions have unveiled a number of reasons for closures with the threat of severe weather.

  1. Schools do not want parents and busses on the road during damaging wind or tornado events.
  2. In Louisiana, not all school buildings are as structurally sound as “concrete, interior walls.”
  3. In an increasingly sue happy society, if one school closes, the dominoes will fall from there so to avoid scrutiny or litigation.

From a safety perspective, the logic is clear. There really is no arguing with the proactive measure of reducing road traffic during severe weather. One could potentially argue that most (not all) schools are much safer than many wood framed homes, and obviously mobile homes, which are the primary types of structures in this particular region.

Less clear is the threshold that determines this. School boards familiar with snow have benchmark accumulations that necessitate adjustments. Sometimes, these may coincide with key times like mornings and afternoons. Schools in coastal areas fall more in lockstep with communities in issuing closures for tropical events. But where is the delineation for severe weather? Is it a specific risk category? A probabilistic range of values?  A gut feeling based on what “they’re” saying? A reaction to others?

The weather communication aspect of this is somewhat concerning. Naturally, even in an area with enhanced or moderate risk of severe weather, very few schools and people will actually experience destructive weather. Even if the initial decision to close schools was not made by meteorologists, the blowback of closures and cries of “overhyping” inevitably will. If these closures stem simply from public attention and reaction, then we might anticipate spring months to yield fewer and fewer closures as a natural desensitization to severe weather season occurs—especially in an active month like May 2019.

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Lastly, and perhaps most problematic, are the societal issues that need worked through if a new precedent is being set.  At least in southeast Louisiana, in response to the school closures, government offices also closed. We assume this is done as an effort to allow parents to be home with kids who are now off from school as an alternative to making daycare or babysitting arrangements. The first sentiment you might expect to hear is a common one, “my tax dollars are paying them for a free day off?” However, the other problem with this is broader, more abstract and more troublesome. How is a parent in the private sector to view this situation? A friend to several small business owners, I know well that most private companies simply cannot afford or risk a day of productivity to a relatively low chance threat. Therefore, parents in this sector either:

  1. Resent their managers for not affording them the same flexibility as a government employed parent

OR

  1. Resent local and regional decision makers for conveying (even if unintentionally) that government employees have the benefit of greater flexibility to care for their children in an emergency situation

Everyone is entitled to his or her own viewpoint on the matter. The issue is not establishing if one is right or wrong, the issue is accepting that these sentiments exist and acknowledging them proactively via collaborative workshopping and subsequent community outreach.

As is the case in most weather influenced decisions and outcomes, the public onus will inevitably fall back to us—the meteorologists. I believe we need to address this topic as the trend of school closures in severe weather is likely to grow. Meteorology will continue to improve, and storm prediction will increasingly flex muscle in post-event verification. Controversy surrounding school closures will mount as well and likely become a more common point of contention. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that it will come from cross-sector communication. I challenge meteorologists, public officials and local Integrated Warning Teams to get together and begin this conversation, now.


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Josh Eachus is the chief meteorologist at WBRZ News 2 in Baton Rouge. Josh received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in December 2017 with published research and expertise on effective communication of weather, especially during high impact events such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

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