Deadly Santa Barbara Landslides and NorCal Fires Point to a Failure of Early Warnings

Emergency workers carrying a woman rescued in Montecito, Calif., on Tuesday. The New York Times, Jan 10, 2018.

As I write this, I’m shocked and saddened by the deaths and destruction that have just unfolded just north of me in Santa Barbara County. CNN reports that 17 people have been killed and at least a hundred homes and business have been damaged or destroyed. Crews are still working to finish any rescues, no less begin the long task of recovery.

Given the scale of destruction here in SoCal from both the landslides and the Thomas Fire, given the 42 people who were killed in Sonoma County, and given the growing risk of climate-change-related extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey — one question we must to ask: Why did all of these people die?

Although these are complex events with many causes, we have to start looking at how early warning systems (EWS) in both Northern and Southern California failed. And we have to begin asking serious questions about how to improve our ability to predict threats — and also how to communicate this to people using their mobile phones in a fashion that is geographically targeted, reliable and informative.  

What’s clear from these recent tragedies and from the over 15 other “natural” disasters in the US in the past year: We are entering a new era in terms of the risks we face from natural disasters — and we are underprepared.

Of course the term “natural” is a bit of a misnomer because research shows that many of these disasters are fed in some way by human-created climate change. This post isn’t about the critical importance of fighting climate change, and I’m not going to waste energy complaining about regressive energy policies here.

Instead, I’m going to make a modest proposal: California, the 7th largest economy in the world, needs to revolutionize the field of disaster management, early warning systems, disaster risk reduction, and threat modeling. We need to give emergency managers better tools so they can send more effective alerts.

Given the brain-power in this state — our UC system, our National Laboratories, Silicon Valley — we can and must do better. Predictive analytics that combine computer-based mapping and threat assessment with advanced sensors and remote sensing could yield huge benefits over the hodge-podge of different approaches that we use to predict the areas most at risk.

Of course the most advanced analytics are useless if we can’t communicate the threat to people — and get them to take action before, during and after an incident. These recent tragedies have demonstrated in bold relief that even door-to-door alerts are not always enough to motivate people to evacuate. So we also need to innovate in how we conceptualize, visualize and communicate risk.

These are big challenges and they come on top of our primary goals to reduce emissions and adapt to the many changing threats. But with that said, we need better and more targeted data and alerts — and if our federal government cuts off funds for these kinds of projects, California should forge our own path. Any innovations that California can develop in terms of emergency response will not only save lives and property in the US, but can help nations around the world.


Welcome to Politics Earth!

Welcome to Politics Earth a site about the politics of the environment, and the tools and tricks of digital scholarship. As a PhD student studying public policy and world politics, and a long time environmentalist, I’m interested in connections between social and natural systems and evidence-based approaches to sustainability.

The digital scholarship side of this site began as a list of tools and tips I created to aid my studies — then I realized a) this might be useful and b) I might learn something if I turned it into a web site. Scholars doing empirical work need to search for, code and analyze data; find and organize bibliographic materials; write, program and design, use GIS and statistical tools — and so on. Do you have a way to do it better? Please post!