Are you more likely to pound the panic button at the first sign of trouble or to remain cool in a crisis?
Changing news and notices about a hurricane named Sally (ha!) during my family’s beach vacation demonstrate common obstacles to communicating effectively and inspiring people to react appropriately in potentially alarming situations.
Obstacle #1: Convincing people to acknowledge the possibility early on
From growing up near the coast and spending numerous vacations at the beach, I have learned not to waste time fretting over the weather. For one thing, coastal conditions can change with the wind. For another, I’ve enjoyed countless days of sunshine directly on the beach while menacing clouds hovered offshore or inland.
Nevertheless, to ensure our September getaway to Florida’s Gulf Coast was pleasant, my family rented a lovely home on the water with gorgeous views and splendid porches. No matter the weather, we’d be perfectly content in that environment. Not any of us gave a second thought to a storm brewing south in the Gulf of Mexico.
We spent three delightful days on the beach before realizing that Hurricane Sally was creeping towards Louisiana. Yes, the typically calm surf had turned choppy, but the storm’s anticipated landfall was about 250 miles/400 km west of our location on the Florida Panhandle. Assuming we were well out of harm’s way, I was wondering about the safety of my cousin in New Orleans and started checking in with her via texts.
Light rain arrived on Monday, giving our skin a break from the sun. From our porch, we welcomed gentle breezes while hanging out together and observing the happenings on the lagoon and bay.
Around midday, out of the blue, our four phones simultaneously sounded a 36-hour-in-advance warning of a hurricane. That was a surprise! Vacillating between a tropical storm and Category 1 hurricane and edging northeasterly, Sally was crawling towards a target about 100 miles to the west of us.
That was new, but hadn’t she been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm?
Obstacle #2: Combating mixed messages
I was the only uneasy one in the group. A practical man, my husband consulted with our community’s property manager, who was nonchalant. It’ll be stormy tomorrow, that’s all.
We dropped by the seafood market and grocery store for supplies, where we encountered the usual crowds that stock up before weather events. They were not fleeing town. The only note of caution I heard came from the owner of the seafood market, who uttered something like they (referring to local authorities) are not going to want cars on the road (when conditions worsened).
Tuesday would be interesting.
Stop worrying, I told myself. It will be windy with a lot of rain, but we’ll be perfectly safe. Otherwise, they would have evacuated us.
Besides, the homes in our community were built to withstand hurricane-force winds. My son, a Realtor, further pointed out that the current owners of the house we were renting had purchased the property only months earlier. The home would have undergone a full inspection at that time. We’d be fine.
Obstacle #3: Compelling people to stay focused and aware as the situation evolves
On Tuesday, the climate—both the weather and my emotions—shifted. As whitecaps formed in the lagoon, the herons and ducks took refuge in grassy areas. A small fishing boat headed out yet immediately turned back to the harbor.
The storm proceeded eastward towards us. Out of nowhere, my husband asked, “Did anyone feel the house move?” No one else did. I thought he was imagining things.
By Tuesday afternoon, the occasional gust rocked the entire house. Like a palmetto tree that yields to the wind, so it doesn’t snap, a house built on pilings is supposed to sway. I looked online for reassurance with mixed results. A construction company’s website cautioned to “call us if you think your pilings are loose.” That left me wondering, Are the pilings on our house sufficiently anchored? With the lagoon rising, the footings at the back of the house were well underwater.
The gusts were increasing in frequency and intensity, causing my heart to clinch. Several times I said things like I’m nervous and I’m worried and asked if anyone else was anxious. They chuckled. We’re going to be fine. We can’t leave now!
Choosing other entertainment, we didn’t tune into The Weather Channel until late in the evening, after I declared, “Don’t you think we should find out what’s happening!” By then, our safe haven felt more like a bird’s nest on a palmetto frond. Accordingly, the weather experts affirmed that Sally, although purportedly losing steam, was coming our way. Flash flooding and tornadoes were real hazards.
Indeed, we were sheltering in place.
Obstacle #4: Minimizing panic to promote level-headed actions
We could go to bed or go berserk. My husband and son went to bed. My daughter, who had been sleeping in a second-floor bedroom, agreed that she should join me in a first-floor room—just in case the roof blew off!
Neither my daughter nor I could fall asleep. If I had been calmer, she might have dozed off. If she were little, I would have put on a brave face and possibly concocted a lighthearted story about our rocking mothership. Instead, she was consoling me!
All the while, wind and rain did their best to beat down the bedroom’s French doors that opened to a rapidly rising lagoon. On top of that, in the wee hours, our phones loudly buzzed with multiple tornado alerts. Thank you, Weather Channel, for showing that terrifying video of a tornado wreaking havoc on a beach!
My daughter and I played musical beds, settling at last in the first-floor room that was furthest from the water.
Obstacle #5: Giving clear indications of improving conditions and conveying if/how/why to proceed with caution
Waking up on Wednesday morning after maybe an hour of sleep, I was ready for an end to the drama. Not so fast! The hurricane, tornado, and flashflood warnings remained in effect. Enough already!
The doom and gloom, I must admit, evaporated somewhat in the daylight. We saw palm tree debris and plastic floats (previously stored beneath houses) scattered about, but nothing big had fallen or collapsed. Cars parked in driveways and roofs of homes were intact. About eight inches of water covered a road closest to the beach, and the lagoon was up by several feet, but there were no alarming signs of flooding. The water remained safely below the homes’ living quarters. Remarkably, too, our community never lost power.
While still under a hurricane warning, we could see local authorities motoring around in trucks, proving the roads were navigable. By midmorning, prematurely in my mind, some highly curious civilians ventured out on foot. When the rain ended, my husband and daughter decided it was time for a stroll.
“What if you get hit in the head by blowing debris?” I asked.
“We’ll be fine,” they said. My son was on the same page, so I went along. If something were to happen, it would happen to us all.
Nothing happened—well, nothing bad. We took an invigorating walk on the beach. The wind abated, and the forces of nature demonstrated just how quickly and powerfully everything could change.
Obstacle #6: Providing an objective assessment of the outcome for the benefit of immediate and future crisis management and prevention
The next morning, sunshine and oxygen-rich air created an idyllic day on the beach, not in the water. Numerous swimmers dove right in, ignoring red flags and lifeguards who warned of dangerous currents and the possibility of submerged wreckage. Other daring/foolhardy souls, eager for a wild ride, took to their Jet Skis. Grateful that the beach had not been swept away, we were perfectly content to stay on the sand.
I chastised myself for being fearful but learned from other beachgoers that I was in good company. Even full-time residents, accustomed to blowing in the wind, confided that the frequent, jarring phone alerts had them on edge. In truth, while riding out the storm, we were all sitting ducks!
Sally had arrived as a powerful Category 2 hurricane with 105-mph. winds. To note, authorities order evacuations for Category 3 storms with wind speeds that exceed 110 mph. We were extremely fortunate. Neighboring communities not only lost power for days, but also experienced flooding and suffered damage to homes and other structures.
While they certainly don’t ask for trouble, coastal dwellers understand that every hurricane season poses a threat of one or more destructive storms. When given information, people must, in turn, decide what, if anything, they will do to mitigate potential risks to life and property.
I told you so!
Your warning might stem from having been there and done that, allowing you to identify the peril ahead. Alternatively, it might arise from studying a problem and/or possessing powers of discernment, so you anticipate trouble on the horizon.
Upon assessing the degree and immediacy of danger, you’ll want to consider the personal characteristics of the individuals you need to inform in determining which words and tone would most likely motivate them to respond appropriately. Even then, no matter how rationally and convincingly you state your case, some people won’t react—either not at all or not the way you believe they should.
Why is that?
Many people must experience the full force of a storm before they are convinced of its power. That’s why, as they say, history repeats itself.
My best to you,
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady
Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at https://WriteLady.com.