Millions of people have been affected by the blizzard that hit the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region during the weekend, with the storm’s after-effects still being felt days after the last snowflake fell.
Here, in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, schools and local government offices are closed, hazardous driving conditions persist on secondary roads and emergency managers are busy coordinating infrastructure recovery. Local businesses are also still in the process of getting back to routine operations.
I noticed an interesting phenomenon playing out continuously on social media channels in the hours after the storm – emergency managers urging people not to drive, while simultaneously local businesses urged people to “Come on out! We’re open!” Err on the side of caution and stay off icy, slushy roads or take a chance and be extra careful to alleviate the “cabin fever” that comes from days stuck indoors?
This region doesn’t often see snow accumulation, so during this big storm, accompanied with bitter cold, the messaging from emergency managers was and has been what you would expect, including:
- Cars on roadways can hamper treatment and removal equipment operators.
- Unsafe conditions could mean more accidents for those who choose* to drive (141 in this area during the storm, according to one news report).
- Secondary roads that can’t be treated or plowed could mean more stranded vehicles (434 here, according to that same news report).
- Accidents can have secondary effects (e.g., more than 7,500 people in one community lost power after a driver struck a utility pole).
- Extreme cold increases the chances of hypothermia and frost bite.
Emergency management folks in Virginia did a great job communicating the myriad safety messages throughout the storm and its (ongoing, as of this writing) aftermath, using SMEM tactics. That said, and with many businesses owners taking to SM to drum up business, leads me to a few questions:
- How do emergency managers feel about business owners urging people to get out of the house when their messages are the opposite?**
- Restoring infrastructure and commerce after an event like this is important, but is it irresponsible for business owners to ignore public safety warnings to promote customer visits?***
- To whom would an emergency manager communicate and what would she say if she perceived that business owners were promoting risky behavior, given unsafe conditions? Individual business district associations?
- Without mandatory street closings during a snow and ice event, is the burden of safety for self and others ultimately the responsibility of individual citizens who choose to heed or ignore safety “suggestions?”
The answers to some of those questions may be easy for emergency managers to give, but what is the solution when there’s a perception that social media users are potentially exacerbating their efforts to help keep the public safe? What’s the counter-argument from business owners?
I wouldn’t mind (hint, hint) hearing the opinions of both business owners and emergency managers in the comments below. I have my own thoughts when it comes to all these questions, but I’d like to hear others before I write a follow-up post.
*I’m not talking about people who have to drive during these conditions, for the sake of argument. That’s a different issue.
**Anecdotally, some businesses did include “… if you can get here safely …” notes with their marketing messages, but that was the minority during my monitoring. Also, I’m referring to businesses that offer “nice to have” services and products, not “need to have.”
***Based on my own monitoring of traditional and social media, it would be almost impossible for the average citizen to not know that such warnings existed before, during and after the storm.
Image by WikiCommons user Famartin used under Creative Commons license. Original image here. The image has not been altered. Note: This image is from a 2016 weather event, not the weather event discussed in this post.