In the children’s songs, Morningtown ride (1957 Malvina Reynolds), girls and boys under their blankets are “All bound for Morningtown/Many miles away.” This refrain is repeated until near the end when we hear that “Somewhere there is Morningtown/Many miles away.”
I sang this song many times (badly) to my boys. The technique of indicating there’s a train voyage which will take time and cause the boys to arrive “[m]any miles away” is a nice mix of time and place. So is the notion that the name of the place is a combination of a time of day (Morning) and a settlement of people (town).
John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost uses a similar combination of precision and vagueness to describe Hell in his quest to “justify the ways of God to men.”
Metaphors are invaluable when soothing children, and when trying to describe and probe the almost unfathomable.
But why would emergency plan writers use this technique?
Brisbane, Australia advocates “[c]areful planning” in advance of a decision on whether to evacuate. Fair enough. In fact the plan suggests ensuring that people “would be significantly safer at another location.” Readers are also encouraged to determine if the risks of moving to another location are less than the risks of staying put.
This all makes sense, until you think seriously about what this might mean to a person facing a risk. Does it make sense to someone who will have to make the life and decision about whether to call for an urban evacuation? In fact it just might delay information gathering or the decision. What is careful planning? Is there a lot of dangerous planning going on that we need to correct? How much safer is “significantly” safer. Is this a statistical significance or a qualitative one? Is “safer” measured in discomfort, injuries, or death?
Comparing risks is a good idea. There’s no such thing as no risk. Some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency. Moving the elderly and hospital patients probably reduces life expectancy in many cases. But how shall one measure the risk in one location, the risk of moving people, and the risk of locating people elsewhere? We are none the wiser by reading Brisbane’s plan.
Waterloo advocates developing a list of “reliable” contractors, but doesn’t actually list them.
In Tampa they’re pretty precise. Their Emergency Operations Plan stipulates that “every attempt will be made to obtain the assigned driver or drivers who are familiar” with certain types of vehicles. Good idea. There are good reasons why heavy equipment operators, school bus drivers, and 18 wheeler drivers need training and special drivers’ licenses. Putting a cabbie at the wheel of a school bus or highway coach may be more live-threatening than leaving people in the danger zone.
Another way of creating the impression of precision is through using words with lots of syllables. “Procuring” seems more precise than “buying” and yet the end result is still the same—obtaining something. When someone says s/he will “utilize” a technique, the impression given is that more thought has gone into this than from someone who is just going to “use” a technique. Wrong, but a strong impression.
Tampa will “ascertain” the type and location of “all” available transportation vehicles.
Houston uses a combination of vague weakness and proscriptive strength in its dictum that “[l]aw enforcement will request wrecker services needed to promptly respond and clear disabled vehicle impediments …” Leaving aside how a “disabled vehicle” differs from a “disabled vehicle impediment”, Houston will need an order not a “request.”
This mock-precision does not take the place of actually doing the work described. Make a list. Check it twice. Stop nattering about what a good idea a list would be.