3A.1 What Social? Navigating the Conceptual Challenges of Defining the Partners and Publics in VORTEX Southeast Research

Monday, 13 January 2020: 2:15 PM
151B (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Jack R. Friedman, Univ. of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; and D. LaDue

NOAA’s commitment to ensuring that social scientific research is intimately tied to more traditional meteorological research reflects a more than decade-long acknowledgement that the prevention of the loss of life and property (the mission of the NWS) demands a deeper understanding of the behavior of the publics it seeks to protect. From the start of the VORTEX-Southeast initiative, it has been shaped by questions not only directed at the peculiar features of tornado genesis that pose challenges to the meteorology of severe convective weather in the southeast, but, also, the particular social aspects of the southeast. Some of these social dimensions were known in advance – like the high population density (relative to the Great Plains) and the high prevalence of vulnerable housing (mobile and manufactured homes) in the region – prompting efforts to enumerate, quantify, qualify, and understand how these dimensions might shape behavior. Other social dimensions were hypothesized or suspected (or, for some, assumed) including that high rates of poverty and racial inequalities could contribute to vulnerabilities or that the publics in the southeast had lower awareness of and education regarding tornadoes (again, relative to assumptions about the weather knowledge of publics in the Great Plains). For these hypothesized dimensions, VORTEX-Southeast-funded social scientists sought to assess the truth behind these vulnerabilities through demographic, survey, and interview-driven studies among the publics of the southeast.

To a great extent, the work that has occurred with the publics in the southeast has focused on understanding enough to provide better guidance to the weather enterprise to influence people to take better action before, during, and after the threat of tornadoes. Therefore, there has also been a focus on understanding how meteorologists, media partners, and emergency managers understand the complexities of severe convective weather in the region – partly to gather data on how they understand and cope with tornadoes, but, also, partly to determine how they interact with publics (via social media, traditional media, indirectly through EMs, and/or other forms of communication).

This presentation will summarize some of these on-going VORTEX-Southeast social science projects in order to frame the findings from our research on how NWS meteorologists in the southeast conceptualize and communicate with their partners (e.g., Emergency Managers) and their publics. The publics served by an NWS WFO are often provided the most conservative forecast because NWS meteorologists are both limited by the current state of the science and by the need to hedge overly-precise-but-more-risky forecasts. This both comes from and reinforced meteorologists' preconceptions about the behavior of publics in the southeast – when they will respond and take action, when they might ignore warnings, when they might be confused by or become passive in the face of severe weather forecasts, etc. Partners, unlike publics, are critical stakeholders who act in the interest of publics. As public safety-oriented experts and professionals, partners often expect more fine-grained and privileged insights into NWS meteorologists’ forecasts and predictions (i.e., the more precise-but-risky forecasts). These expectations, though, are often frustrated by what they perceive as the NWS meteorologists’ reluctance to provide their more fine-grained “best guess” rather than the more coarse public forecast. While “partner briefings” tend to permit NWS meteorologists more freedom to articulate more precise-but-risky forecast information, they continue to hedge on providing partners with their true “gut instinct” and “best guess” for fear that partners might not remain adequately vigilant in the face of a worst case scenario. Bringing together all of these different aspect of and conceptualizations of “the social” within the context of the broader VORTEX-Southeast initiative, this presentation will summarize progress on a tool being developed for NWS meteorologists – the Brief Vulnerability Overview Tool (BVOT) – that has been created for two NWS WFOs in the southeast to better inform forecasters of the vulnerabilities that partners and publics face. The presentation will conclude with a discussion of the operational/applied implications of this approach to social scientific research and how it reflects both the evolution of VORTEX-Southeast research and new paths forward for this critical initiative.

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