A day before Hurricane Laura made landfall, the National Hurricane Center issued a warning of “unsurvivable storm surge” in parts of Texas and Louisiana. It’s a phrase that quickly captured widespread attention. Many journalists, including at Wired, NPR, BBC, Mother Jones, Vox, and here at Popular Science, ran headlines amplifying this message. Senator Bernie Sanders repeated this language in a tweet. The National Hurricane Center’s tweet with this message was shared over 12,000 times. Both Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards borrowed this phrase in urging residents to evacuate.
It’s hard to definitively say whether this unsparing language influenced evacuation decisions, but “the fact that we don’t know of any direct storm surge fatalities from Laura is hopefully a testament that people did get that message,” says Michael Brennan, the branch chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the National Hurricane Center. This highly-trafficked phrase is also a testament to just how critical it is to communicate the specific dangers posed by an incoming storm — even a simple choice of adjectives can make a difference in how information is disseminated. As climate change brings intensified hurricanes, the language, visuals, and communication tools used to convey the increasing dangers of storms become all the more crucial.
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