Communicating Hurricane Risk In The Fake News Era

Some of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian

As Hurricane Ian roared along the western Florida coast and made landfall near Sanibel Island Wednesday, images of the storm’s fury filled social media and regular old media. Despite being extremely, laughably busy at my day job, I am a weather nerd and checked out the progress of the beast on occasion as it unfolded.

What I saw, both via radar and satellite images and videos of the usual suspects out in the elements for some reason, was a bit shocking even if I was expecting quite a storm. It was obvious to me that this was going to be a bad one. I looked at Google Maps of the expected location of landfall, and my heart sank a bit. I saw towns like Port Charlotte that are full of those houses with canals behind them. The canals are very nice luxuries to have in normal times, as it must be nice to be able to park your boat right outside your back door.

But during a hurricane, they become pathways for storm surge to follow, and aerial images of homes, boats, and pieces of homes all shoved into each other bore this out. Then came even more horrible news: a Lee County, Florida official said there could be “hundreds of deaths.” While that was walked back a bit by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who said the death toll is of course still uncertain, later Thursday President Biden said that there is a likelihood of “substantial loss of life.”

Along with being a weather nerd, I also worked at AccuWeather for several years, and one of the more frustrating things in weather communication is public skepticism. People cling to the myth that weather forecasters are never right like it’s a holy belief. But it’s not a belief backed up by any fact, and it can be deadly.

A sad memory I have of my time working at the private weather company AccuWeather is an angry email I got from a random person. Because my email was the only one connected to a name on the website (the others were things like “” or “, I would often get some over-the-top venom from people. Wishing I would get cancer, rants about how it must be nice to be wrong all the time and still have a job, etc., these were some of the things I’d get in my inbox. But this particular one really stuck in my mind.

As Hurricane Ivan was bearing down on the Florida Panhandle, I received an email from a guy who said he was in his 60s, lived in the Panhandle all his life, never left for a single storm, and then let me have it about overhyping the storm. Said it was going to be no big deal and how we weren’t going to scare him. Then, several days later, I was going through media hits for AccuWeather related to the storm, part of my job as a comm person, and I saw a list of names of area Ivan fatalities in one local newspaper. In that list, I saw a 63-year-old man whose name I recognized – it was the guy who sent me the email telling me we were overhyping.

I thought of this when I heard that some people in the path of Ian didn’t evacuate. Now, the reasons why people do not evacuate are not always about being stubborn or stupid. Some people cannot afford to leave given their income, and really, we as a society need to be better about helping to move those people out of harm’s way. People have disabilities that make it hard to leave, some don’t want to leave pets behind, some speak a different language, and some with literacy issues may find it difficult to find their evacuation zones. We need to be careful about making blanket statements about people who die in hurricanes as foolish or stubborn.

However, there are people who refuse to leave out of stubbornness. They say “well, I made it through this other storm, I’ll make it through this one.” That’s really poking the bear in a time of climate change. Even without climate change, no two hurricanes are exactly alike and the reason why you made it through say Hurricane Irma was because you were 150 miles from the eye.

There is also complete BS that is spread prior to a big storm. I cannot put into words how annoying it is to me and other weather nerds/meteorologists to see bad information about a storm being shared on social media. It can either cause unnecessary panic, or a false sense of security. There is also the weird urge for many Americans to dismiss expert opinion and pay more attention to some rando’s ideas on Facebook. I will say this: One of the reasons why meteorologists were so nervous about COVID in the early stages of the pandemic was they knew how Americans can be, and how we have a society that seems to hate expertise. And this got worse and worse as COVID progressed.

I can’t shake the feeling that hundreds, maybe thousands didn’t evacuate because they just do not believe experts, and they stayed put based on that line of thinking. I of course have no evidence this is the case. But given the last couple of years, would anyone be surprised if we discover later that people died because of it?

The last word goes to Mr. John Hiatt, with one of my favorite hurricane songs.