Sara Rubin here, wishing I had a crystal ball to see what the next few hours and days hold for Monterey County’s rivers and weather. The very nature of hydrologic forecasting is unpredictable, especially in a river like the Salinas River—it’s a winding, sandy, alluvial river, unlike the granite-lined rivers of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, as staff writer David Schmalz writes in an explainer on flood predictions

For weeks now, county officials have been sounding a repetitive alarm about potential storm impacts, including flooding. The sense of urgency has ebbed and flowed in different riverfront communities most immediately impacted by rising water levels, but it all kicked up a notch last night when Sheriff Tina Nieto announced that the Monterey Peninsula could be cut off from major roads, effectively creating an island.

Updated modeling this morning showed a little more leeway and a slightly lower crest predicted, and Nieto again convened a press conference today to share the updates. While the current forecast is less dire, the message from Nieto and others remains the same: Please take this storm seriously, please obey all road closure signs, please heed all evacuation orders. 

“We are managing very unpredictable and uncommon conditions on the Salinas River,” County Supervisor Wendy Root Askew said. “My colleagues and I are committed to keeping our community safe and informed and giving you time to prepare for what may occur with the closure of roads.”

Monterey Mayor Tyller Williamson reiterated: “I know it goes without saying, but please heed all warnings that are coming out from official channels.”

I’m not convinced it goes without saying, which is why they keep repeating the message again and again. I think a slow-moving emergency like this, that may or may not become a major emergency, creates a difficulty for messaging. On the one hand, you risk giving too little caution, and the public could be caught off guard; on the other hand, you risk sounding too cautious, and then if the forecast doesn’t pan out and people have canceled work or other plans, they dismiss government as sounding like a nanny state. Of course the dire forecast might be right, in which case the messaging is spot on, but with bad news. It seems when you are delivering bad news, it’s impossible to win on the messaging front. 

I asked Nieto how officials are managing this communications challenge, with a repetitive message about a forecast that may or may not come to pass. Ultimately it comes down to principles versus preferences, she says. 

“Decisions are made on the principle of the sanctity of life,” Nieto says. “I understand. I know it’s hard—people don’t like any news when they have to leave their residence [in the case of evacuations] or cannot leave [in the case of an “island”]. We just want to keep our county safe.”

Undersheriff Keith Boyd emphasizes that of course, officials hope they’ve overprepared. “The unpredictability of the weather will dictate what occurs,” he says. “In a perfect world, the weather comes in light. But our theory is, we want to get the public prepared, if it comes in as worst-case.”

Or as USGS hydrologist Anthony Guerriero told Schmalz, “It’s a lot easier to get people out of the way than it is to get them out of the water.”

To that end, I will join in the repetitive calls from officials to heed the public warnings. You might feel disconnected from this unfolding disaster—maybe you’re not in an evacuation zone (odds are you’re not, with about 6 percent of the county’s population affected). But conditions may unfold in a way that impacts every one of us. Whether or not the forecasts are right, we can all contribute wisely to protecting our own lives, protecting public safety officials and keeping them out of dangerous situations—then hope that we’ve overreacted, rather than under-prepared. 

For continued storm updates from the Weekly, click here.