The first alerts of severe weather blared across millions of phones at 8:41 p.m. that night when the National Weather Service warned of dangerous flash flooding from the looming storm. Officials would issue three more alerts, late into the night, urging people to immediately head for higher ground and to stay out of rising floodwaters.
A barrage of other alerts from a litany of apps lit up phone screens throughout the night — prompting some to wonder if people were just too inundated with information to take the threat seriously.
Experts call it “warning fatigue,” and no one can be sure what role it might have played in a tragedy that killed scores of people across the Northeast, including more than two dozen in New Jersey and at least 11 in New York City — many drowning in their basement apartments or in cars trapped in submerged roadways.
The weather service acknowledged that in the past, alerts were being pushed out too often. There’s been lots of handwringing over how to get more people to heed warnings.
“It’s either they don’t believe the information that they’re hearing — they can’t verify it — or there’s some other reason that is completely out of anybody’s control,” said Ross Dickman, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in New York.
“It’s up to that individual,” he said, “but I think we need to do more work in understanding why people make the decisions that they do when they receive information and help get them to understand the impacts.”
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