Life in the Cone of Uncertainty

I’m going to interrupt my regularly scheduled posting to talk about hurricanes. Unlike earthquakes, however, hurricanes come with plenty of warning signs. And with warnings, I have the opportunity to take action on my own behalf. There are lessons here for technical communicators in this.

Some problems are predictable

Like death and taxes, some challenges in our lives (business or personal) are predictable. Some of them might appear on a repetitive basis–like taxes, product reviews, or audits. I don’t give hurricanes much attention, but I know to start paying attention when they start showing up in the news; here in Orlando, that’s June 1-November 30.

Emergencies, by their very nature, are unpredictable and can appear without warning: car accidents, heart attacks, what have you. The “good” news about regularly appearing challenges is that you can prepare for them.

Have a plan

You can take precautions regarding car accidents or health-related concerns by reducing the likelihood of their happening–driving safely, taking care of your health, getting a designated driver, getting regular doctor checkups, what have you. Also, if you know something bad/difficult is coming, you can set up your assets, operations, or plans to account for when they do. This is why businesses have crisis communications plans; buy insurance; or keep a “rainy day fund” (cash reserve) to pay for any unexpected expenses.

In the case of hurricanes, it usually doesn’t hurt to have a set of emergency supplies.

Focus on what’s important

I did my hurricane supply shopping this past weekend because a) I take these storms seriously and b) there’s little I can think of that’s more unpleasant than shopping in a store full of empty shelves and crowds of panicky people. Those supplies can include shelf-stable foods (the ever-infamous Spam among them), necessary medications, bottled water, candles, batteries for flashlights, cash, gasoline for the car, etc. You want to be ready for (again) predictable unpleasant conditions, such as no electrical power or potable water. But the point with these shopping runs is that you collect “the essentials” so you can keep body and mind together in some semblance of health and order.

Some situations can be worse than others. Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane, pummeled the Texas coast with wind and unbelievable amounts (4-5 feet/1.2-1.5 meters) of rain. Hundreds of thousands of people had to evacuate for safety…how long it will take them to return home and rebuild is anyone’s guess. Now it looks like it could be Florida’s turn. Irma is a category 5 storm and pretty fast moving, so the winds will present a bigger problem and the rains won’t be quite as torrential. Still, an evacuation order is not out of the question, especially for people on the South Florida coast. Depending on the actual track of the storm, instead of sheltering in place, a bunch of us might be packing up whatever critical belongings we need (in case everything else is destroyed). In that case, again, you need to consider what’s most important to preserve?

On a personal level, you’re preserving lives (humans and pets), precious personal items and papers, clothing, In the case of a business in the path of a hurricane, important assets would include the safety of your people, your plant/building, your intellectual assets, and your business data (banking records, accounts payable, accounts receivable, etc.). Here, “the cloud” is a great support system because more often than not the servers for storing your data are not in a hurricane-prone area. That, or there is sufficient backup that servers destroyed by the storm are still backed up elsewhere in the country…or the world. If you’re not on the cloud, you’d best get your important paperwork to dry ground.

There’s still a cone of uncertainty

The images at the top of this entry show the current (as of 8 a.m.) anticipated track of Irma. The left image shows what weather forecasters have taken to calling “the spaghetti diagram,” which shows all of the potential paths the eye of the hurricane could take in the next 3-5 days. These lines reflect different atmospheric and scientific models for predicting hurricane behavior; they can vary because of differing assumptions, calculation methods, or other factors. Within 12-24 hours, most of the models will tend to agree with each other as to the storm’s intensity and direction. However, after that, uncertainties and details in the models can result in very different outcomes.

In similar ways, bad situations that you know are coming could result in the worst possible scenario for you or your organization. On the other hand, something completely unexpected could happen, and the problem you thought was going to hit you straight on turns out to have only a minimal impact. The “cone of uncertainty” (the image on the right) is that vague area covering all of possible outcomes. Until a known event arrives, you aren’t completely certain what the outcome will be. There’s danger and hope to be found in that uncertainty, so the best you can do, as noted above, is to be prepared, have a plan, and take care of what’s essential so you can withstand whatever the world throws at you.

Stay safe, all. I’ll try to do the same.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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