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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 11:22 am | Fair 62º


Ron Fink: To Leave Or Not When Rain Is Predicted

In a recent Noozhawk commentary, the writer commented concerning several recent Montecito evacuation orders in response to weather reports.

He suggested that “as soon as this immediate danger has passed this spring, it would behoove residents to have a 'come to Jesus' meeting with elected officials and public safety policy makers about this one-size-fits-all response.”

Ordering evacuations is the responsibility of Sheriff Bill Brown, an elected official who is responsible for regional emergency management.

He doesn’t do this in a vacuum; he has at his disposal the resources of both the state and federal government to both predict and help respond to emergency situations.

It doesn’t matter if Brown holds the office or someone else; the responsibility to issue these orders rests with the county sheriff.

Public safety officials are very hesitant to order evacuations because they have homes, too, and wouldn’t like someone ordering them to leave.

Telling someone to “get out of your house” or close your business because something might happen is unpleasant and is looked to as a last resort. It’s also subject to a lot of second-guessing if the predicted condition doesn’t happen.

But, flip the coin: What if emergency managers just twiddled their thumbs and allowed people to make up their own minds? 

Suppose the storm conditions were either correct or their intensity was underestimated; residents of those homes would have been washed away or stranded for days without power, fuel or food. What would he have said then?

I am an amateur weather watcher; my wife always asks, “How much will it rain tomorrow?"

If she asks on Monday, I always reply that “we’ll know on Tuesday.” Predicting the weather, even for experienced professionals with a heavy investment in technology, is a crap shoot.

Weather predictions are based on many factors and one of them is history.

By using data compiled over that last couple of hundred years and comparing it to relatively new satellite imagery of the atmospheric activity of the clouds and sophisticated data bases, weather experts make their predictions.

And, along with the rest of us, they wait to see how the predictions turn out.

Weather predictions are based on regional, not local predictions. Weather predictions for our county are based on information generated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Service forecast office in Los Angeles.

That office covers Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

TV weather personalities and media types always hype a story for the most impact. Montecito naturally attracts a lot of attention because of the personalities who live there.

So, with the TV weather person pointing at a big, colorful projected storm movement/timing image and declaring “an epic storm is approaching,” folks get concerned.

After the fatal January storm, local politicians got a lot of face time in the media and pledged to “fix it.”

Last week, everyone thought the fix they were talking about, which included evacuation plans and finally clearing debris basins and creeks, would be tested to the limit.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way and the storm, although significant, produced less-than-expected rainfall.

Where all that water goes is a matter of geography. We all know water runs downhill, and we see how it follows either natural or manmade water channels.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now remapping those natural water channels and the 100-year flood plain map, meaning where you can build buildings and where the water might go, could change.

So, now there is a call for a “come to Jesus meeting with elected officials and public-safety policy makers about this one-size-fits-all response.” I would urge caution here.

Hindsight is always 20-20, especially when predicting the weather. Turning a bunch of second-guessers loose on elected officials will likely do more harm than good.

The democratic process doesn’t work during emergency planning or response. A more direct and authoritative approach based on a measured evaluation of the public risk is the most crucial element of emergency management.

It might be wise to wait until the FEMA analysis is complete before beginning any conversation about future evacuation plans.

To place these decisions or how they are made in the hands of amateurs or politicians is risky business that should be avoided if the goal is to protect the lives and property of the public.     

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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