Opinion: Red alert


We become old pros at the tornado drill by the time we find our way into third grade. Different from the ubiquitous fire drill, where we’d be marched outside in single-file lines, getting to enjoy a blast of fresh air and some conversation with our friends until the “all-clear” bell, the late winter prep for spring storms would find us marching into the halls carrying our thickest book, generally math, to sit pressed against cinderblock walls, heads bowed with the tome as cover to deflect falling debris. We were hushed routinely and reminded to listen carefully for emergency warnings that would come from the “main” office (usually a substantial and intimidating microphone somewhere on the principal’s desk). Eventually, a voice would bellow that the exercise had not been a “real” emergency but were reassured that future ones would most certainly be.

As the years passed tornado-free, the ritual became occasion to pass notes and whisper with friends as the teachers, especially those a few decades past college, would collect to discuss the events of the day in the hallway-turned-teachers’ lounge.  Those lucky enough to earn the hall monitor duty would discover that tomorrow would be the exercise and would share the forbidden knowledge with their buddies. “We might escape the spelling quiz because a drill should happen during third period – huzzah!”

Then we grew into a world with constant phone notifications, DEFCON nuclear warnings and a Homeland Security Advisory System that has seldom, if ever, fallen below “orange,” signifying a risk of terrorist attack. In a lifetime of snowpocolypse disappointments, hurricane path prediction misfires and almost daily claims of “red alert,” how do we know the difference between Chicken Little and an imminent collapse of the atmosphere? Can we protect every sheep without crying wolf too often?