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Damn Hot or Hot Damn?

July 22, 2009

When is hot enough too hot?  When does does a rumor, much less a situation, become a matter of public concern or even an emergency?  Who decides?

Portland and much of the Pacific Northwest have been gripped by a heat wave for the past few days, which forecasters suggest might linger for at least a few more days before things start to cool down.  The trend will probably continue for awhile longer yet before we see the return of the rain or cool temperatures to the Rose City and its environs.

Residents of Cascadia are unaccustomed to inclement weather such as this, what with all the long days, sunshine, warm temps, and low to moderate humidity.  When you live with almost daily rain showers and gray skies for half a year of more, your benchmark for normalcy can get a bit skewed.

Like most emergency managers we want to help people prepare for and adapt to conditions that might cause them harm.  Most public and non-profit organizations have reminded people in recent days to stay cool, find a shady spot, preferably in an air conditioned building, avoid over-exertion and prolonged sun exposure, eat light meals, and above all stay hydrated.  Messages have included advice on caring for pets and looking after vulnerable neighbors too.  After all, we are nothing if not a caring community.

Nevertheless, as the spell of “bad” weather persists, public officials are getting uncomfortable and not a little anxious that the world  might well be out of kilter or possibly even about to fall off its axis.  “What more should we tell the public?  How should we respond?  How will we know whether we are doing the right thing much less doing enough?  What plans or protocols do we or should we have in place to prepare ourselves and the community for contingencies?”

They have good reason to worry.  People sometimes do odd things when it gets warm.  Why just the other night in Portland’s Pioneer Square, a massive crowd gathered on a Monday as the clock ticked toward midnight on little more than the mere whiff of a rumor that a popular comedian would show up to stage a free, impromptu concert.

The act did indeed come off despite massive and repeated speculation throughout the day that the whole things was just a hoax.  Enough “confirmed” sightings appeared on Twitter and Facebook to give people hope that they might be part of something unique, so they just showed up.

Given the only other game in town that night was one of the city’s too numerous striptease clubs or the opening of the last installment in the Harry Potter serial a lot of people didn’t seem to think it was much of a choice.  Besides, if you didn’t have a ticket to see the Half-blood Prince or a few singles in your pocket to stuff in the dancers’ G-strings then you might as well hangout in the public square with a few rowdy mates.

As 1.00am approached, some in the crowd began to suspect they might have been duped.  But then along came Mr. Chappelle with an amplifier about as big as a toaster to appease his adoring and now quite antsy fans with 20 minutes of so-so stuff.

The fact that the gig was not booked in advance, had no permit, no arrangements for crowd control or security, and incited more than a little edgy and perhaps even some dodgy behavior has certainly attracted a lot of attention.  Some people see it as evidence of the power of social media.  Others see it as unruly and possibly even illegal behavior.  Others think it reflects Portland’s edgy, counter-culture, word-of-mouth vibe.  Others wonder whether it suggests either inadequate opportunities or the adequate appeal of other more constructive or engaging pursuits.  Whatever it says, we also have to wonder what it all means.

For emergency managers, it means one more thing we need to think about while we’re taking the pulse of the community and preparing people to respond.  How should we interpret rumors and innuendo appearing in public spaces like Twitter and Facebook?  How much credence should we put in these sources of information?  And when do we get decision makers and other public officials involved?

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