Extreme Weather Disasters: Developing an Ethic of Resilience in the National Weather Service

Jennifer Henderson

Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA

Warnings that alert the general public to potential severe weather in the United States originate from one source: the National Weather Service (NWS). A government agency that staffs 122 Weather Forecast Offices across the country, meteorologists in its employ embody its mission to protect lives and property. It is an ethic that motivates many individual forecasters to better their “skill” in diagnosing the atmosphere and to improve their collective technologies of detection and dissemination. At the bureaucratic level, however, a competing ethic of accuracy has transformed this sociotechnical enterprise into a center of calculation (Latour 1987), largely preoccupied with the deployment of standards, detection of weather phenomena that meet institutional criteria for “severe,” and assessing statistical measures of success (e.g. false alarm rates). In the past decade, however, a growing emphasis on what the NWS calls Impact-based Decision Support Services has shifted their meteorologists’ attention from an accounting of predictive practices to developing collaborative strategies that emphasize decision maker and user criteria and needs. Based on my ethnographic work in three NWS forecast offices, I argue that this shift to what I characterize as an ethic of resilience is part of a broader institutional future imaginary (Jasanoff 2015) in which forecasters serve as interpreters and communicators of uncertainty based on their growing understanding of their “customers'” situated and contingent circumstances. As Healy and Messman (2014, p. 160) note: “Vulnerabilities and resilience are constituted through the ways such “situational considerations” come into being and are managed.” This nascent ethic, then, has the potential to transform the NWS’ extreme weather disasters discourse and make visible in their sociotechnical infrastructures of risk important societal vulnerabilities and resiliencies that reduce body counts in high uncertainty, high risk disaster contexts.

Healy, S., & Mesman, J. (2014). Resilience contingency, complexity, and Practice. In A. Hommels, J. Mesman, & W. E. Bijker (Eds.), Vulnerability in Technological Cultures: New directions in research and governance (pp. 155–177). The MIT Press.

Jasanoff S (2015). Future imperfect: Science, technology, and the imaginations of modernity. In Jasanoff S and Kim S-H (Eds.), Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available at: http://www.harvardiglp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Jasanoff-Ch-1.pdf

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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