Over the past few weeks, 19 people have died from flash flooding in just one incident. Heavy rainfall fell and flooded canyons in Zion National Park, killing 7 people…and in another incident from the same storm, another 12 died…most women and children.
For this post, I want to concentrate on the 7 who perished in Zion National Park, because we know what happened. Seven men and women, all in their 50s, went on a hike on a beginner’s trail that would require them to go to caves, hike, and swim across streams in canyons. When they do the latter, you are helpless if flash flooding occurs. These 7 hikers ignored repeated warnings, according to news reports, that flash flooding was a major possibility. In fact, soon after they departed, the Park Service closed the trail they were on because of the flash flood warning the National Weather Service had issued for that area, including those canyons. According to reports, after 2″-4″ of rain fell north of the canyons, a wall of water raged through them, sweeping the 7 almost instantly to their deaths as they were caught by the water. They couldn’t swim or run away in time.
Now, some callously might call them stupid for ignoring the warnings. But these people were anything but stupid: one was a police officer for 20 years, one who—beyond all the others—knows about dangers in various situations, such as robberies. A digital camera found on one of the deceased showed a photo of them happily standing together, posing with all smiles—likely a very short time before they all perished.
So what happened? It was certainly a failure of risk perception, and normalcy bias. What are those? To put it simply: your risk perception, when done right, warns you that we just picked up 3″ of rain in over an hour, and there could be flooding. Or, a tornado is coming, and I’d better take shelter (or for you storm chasers, grab your camera and head out…I know you!). In other words: risk perception critically analyzes a situation and determine what risk(s) are associated with an incident, or activity. If you play football, correct risk perception indicates players can hurt you as you are being tackled, and you need to wear proper protective gear. Or that if you climb a ladder to paint, you had better not climb on that rung that says “don’t climb up here or go above this rung, you may lose your balance and hurt yourself” (I’ve always laughed at that one…why have that rung there if you don’t want people on it?).
Normalcy bias says: well, yes, we have had a tornado in our county two years ago, but THAT will never happen again. Or: I suppose there is a risk of a flood, living close to a stream, but we’ve never seen the water levels rise up to where we are before, so therefore, it can’t happen here! But the truth is…it most certainly can happen! But what about those deceased hikers at Zion National Park? If you think I’m going to call them stupid or foolish: I cannot claim that I can perfectly assess risk nor have a normalcy bias. So what went wrong?
First, they did get the warnings about the heavy rain and potential severe flooding that could occur; the canyon they were swept away in was under a flash flood warning. Risk analysis says that hey, canyons are where water is channeled, the park rangers say it could flood instantly, and a flash flood warning is in effect. So, by the account of the park rangers, the risk analysis on their end was correct. They had the information that led them to believe a serious danger was unfolding. For whatever reason, they didn’t close the canyon at that point. They must have believed that the risk was still not high enough yet to make that call. Either way, everyone knew that there was a risk of the canyons flooding in an almost instantaneous timeframe.
Risk analysis would then say: “that’s too dangerous; let’s do something else, even though we spent money on this.” Or: “there is no danger to us.”, Or: “we can get out of there, if we need to; it doesn’t seem too high of a risk to me, let’s go and have fun!”. God only knows what they thought, but it was ultimately one of those three. While I can speculate on which one it is, it won’t matter, as it won’t bring them back, and I’d just be guessing, even though I have a pretty good idea which one it was.
So what about you? If you live in the Midwest and say “A tornado cannot happen here”, I am going to argue that your risk perception is incorrect. Yes, there is a lot of junk on the Internet, but there is also many sites online that are vetted and will correctly tell you of the risks of lightning, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and more. And when you come to that point…where you realize you have family, friends and loved ones to protect, talk to us as to how we can serve you in that way. Please drop us an email or support ticket! Displaying pretty pictures of precipitation is not what we do; it is one of many tools we offer to minimize your exposure to atmospheric dangers, and thus minimize or even eliminating your risk of experiencing loss. By understanding and minimizing your risk to weather hazards, your correct risk perception and destroying your normalcy biases will help keep you safe in weather and non weather-related hazards, when others cry out, “how could this happen to me?” and “it came without warning!”.