In 2014, a winter storm packing debilitating snow and ice brought the state of Georgia to its knees, practically immobilizing the city of Atlanta.
At that time, I was coming back from a STEM education trip in Kings Bay, Florida, and ran directly into the crippling weather. I saw trucks lying on their sides and miles of cars stuck on ice-covered streets and highways for dozens of hours.
Students were stuck in their schools, and professionals were left to either stay in their offices or search for shelter in nearby stores and restaurants. The city was quite literally paralyzed.
While I sat in my car, I began searching for any type of public transit off the highway. I eventually found a bus stuck in the snow. I and some others got the bus out of the snow’s grip and went to pick up stranded people to get them to safety.
It was an event that forever changed my way of thinking about weather and the people impacted by it, particularly the vulnerable and underserved communities affected by dangerous weather and extreme conditions.
Shortly after the “Snowmageddon”, and after a highly publicized and politicized blame game, I decided to gather 40 professional partners representing various sectors — nonprofit leaders, elected officials, regional commission leaders, business leaders and weather experts — and hold a forum to discuss the issue.
Together we devised 20 recommendations for more effective weather preparation.
We submitted our recommendations to the mayor of Atlanta and the governor of Georgia. I’m happy to say that they both incorporated the recommendations into their emergency management operations. In part, because of our efforts, there are now the city and state stipulations to discharge snow trucks early, plans for enhanced coverage by news outlets, and a schedule of staggered school dismissals ahead of snow and ice predictions.
When one considers the impacts of weather and the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma, Katrina, Sandy, and Maria over the last few years, it is easy to see why those emergency preparedness efforts must continue to get communities more weather-ready.
Science and technology tools must be placed in the hands of citizens to better prepare them. This is why I worked with those professional partners, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Weather Channel to implement a program we call a Weather-Ready Nation For All.
The goal of this program is to ensure our underserved and vulnerable populations are best protected from extreme weather conditions with scientific mechanisms and social science applications. From a science perspective, the program works to utilize better forecasting tools to give our communities more advanced warnings about severe weather. From a social science perspective, the program will work to make sure those warnings are understood by the communities, and that the members of those communities are acting accordingly.
Within the Weather-Ready program, we incorporated Rallies for Resilience, a specialized community activity that uses science and technology to bring together neighborhood leaders in a fun and engaging forum.
At the Rallies, we discuss the intricacies of weather and how science is used to better protect citizens. We also engage the youth with computers, gaming, and VR applications.
Further, we strive to engage participants by using citizen science with hands-on applications to help them understand and apply processes used by meteorologists to better predict and forecast weather changes. The Rallies also help us expose our community and faith-based leaders to emergency management due to inclement weather. Our Rallies for Resilience have been extremely successful, even garnering a 2017 Organizational and Individual Community Engagement Award from FEMA.
As with most anything, creating a Weather-Ready Nation For All comes with difficulties and obstacles, three of the bigger ones being language, dialect and cultural barriers that exist. Yet, we are addressing these and other challenges to help make emergency preparedness and the science of weather preparation important to our communities.
First, we have empowered our trusted messengers in our communities to communicate our message better. Faith leaders, civic organizers, and non-profit organizations are our greatest mouthpieces regarding preparedness and the science of weather, and we need them to be most prepared for these challenges.
Next, we need to make sure that our neighborhoods and communities are designed to be as resilient as possible. We need to take into account, for example, the importance of addressing flooding by incorporating bioswales. We need to relay the importance of using dry ponds, good stormwater management, and rainwater management systems, also.
Understanding these can help mitigate damage from a science and engineering perspective to help mitigate issues caused by flooding. These initiatives center on ensuring that community members are educated so that they can better understand how to mitigate potential weather issues.
Atlanta is more prepared than it has ever been to tackle weather emergencies. Yet, it continues to educate, empower and engage its underserved and rural communities with activities such as tours of NOAA’s sophisticated, science-driven facilities. Atlanta engages its youth in emergency preparedness with advanced weather methodologies, and they, in turn, teach their parents about the importance of weather preparation.
It has just completed a comprehensive resilience plan, that helps to advance citywide concepts of disaster preparedness.
We, our organization is teaching three- and four-year-olds about the earth, climate, and weather as part of a STEM education initiative. Because of these initiatives and so much more, Atlanta is aware, more resilient and ready to survive the harsh elements of dangerous weather. It is a quintessential example of how the United States can move towards building a safer, Weather-Ready Nation For All.