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Surprise!

Brutal drought has captured much of the Midwest and Southern U.S. as record temperatures threaten crops, health and already struggling economies. For those who take time to discuss the probability of future events the 2011 drought is hardly surprising. While this does not diminish its potential to bring great harm to the 17 states that are being affected, it does underscore the power of predictable surprise.

Reviewing meteorological trend data, it was clear some time ago that a very strong La Nina would shut down the moisture ‘pipeline’ that typically runs through the Midwest and South. This abnormal cooling of Pacific water normally follows El Nino, an abnormal warming of the same waters. A similar pattern was recorded in the early to mid-1950s, which remains a record-breaking period that impacted the economy with higher prices while reducing the availability of produce and beef.

With the recovery still bumping along, this does not bode well for state and local economies. People and enterprises remain in various stages of assuming or living a bunker mentality and many have been left with few resources to weather this storm. This is a sad play on words except, of course, when clashing weather patterns bring horrendous downpours and flash floods, or provide germination for tornados that decimate entire communities. We were told the climate is changing and would grow more violent, extreme and unpredictable. Are there any believers? Anyone? Anyone? By the way, similar weather is predicted for 2012.

The phenomenon of predictable surprise occurs when people cannot accept facts that would allow them to properly prepare and plan for anything other than immediate disasters. It is easier to react to a flood or tornado than to prepare for weather that may or may not happen. Even when the data and attendant probability calculations begin to tell us that it is a reasonably good idea to get ready, we often choose to wait to see what happens. By then, of course, it is often too late.

Recent news stories have trumpeted that, due to weather-related issues, hope for strong economic recovery is all but tabled for another year. Business vitality is declining along with optimism and cash. Many ran out of savings a long time ago and struggling banks are more unwilling than ever to assist. In Texas alone, 213 out of 254 counties have been designated as natural disaster areas. They are eligible for aid, but it most likely won’t be enough to sustain every farm, ranch, business or community hit by various elements of this disastrous weather pattern. Similar scenarios are playing out in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, New Mexico and other states at a time when the federal government is reeling from Congressional budget ping-pong. States are receiving aid, but it will probably be insufficient to counter predicted impacts, much less energize recovery.

Folks, it was clearly predicted that more jobs would be lost and that job recovery would be the slowest aspect of economic recovery. We are not merely recovering; we are transforming a global economy. With government downsizing, around 660,000 public sector jobs have disappeared in the past 12 months.  You can’t rant for reduced government then gripe that jobs are being cut…you can’t have it both ways. Virtually all economists predicted that unemployment would stay high. So why do so many people seem surprised that unemployment has not declined? While there has been a net job gain, it was only around 18,000 jobs last month – not enough to move the needle much. Certainly, this is a political tool for those seeking office, but the reality is that nothing can be done about jobs until the transformation is close to complete. 

Housing prices and sales remain low and may even drop more this year. In terms of economic recovery, if you toss in the impact of severe weather, banks continuing their reluctance to lend, Congressional diddling, and an abundance of consumer discontent, we will see slow growth into 2012. In fact, count on slow growth through 2014.

When you review all the converging variables – the level of deferred maintenance (for roads, sewer and water infrastructure, airports, ports, buildings, and various federal, state and local systems,) an educational system under fire, Medicare and Medicaid issues, questions about the longevity of Social Security, escalating health care costs, and the ongoing total cost of dubious wars – you have the ingredients for predictable economic struggles. There should be no surprise.

I do not wish to imply that one can fully prepare for weather disasters. But I do encourage a commitment to data analysis to determine reality. Once you and your community understand what IS occurring and what might occur with some predictability, sensible preparations can be made. Don’t be surprised if the river floods when engineers have emphatically stated that a certain rainfall or snowmelt would produce flows that would overwhelm existing levees. And, of course, when meteorologists have explained new weather patterns that will bring three times as much rain to the area in heavy downpours. Pay attention and take heed.  Don’t be surprised when conditions change or challenges emerge when they were clearly predicted and/or predictable through simple analysis and scenario planning. I wonder- is your community confronting reality? Is it prepared for the predicted challenges ahead?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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