4.2 Communication of Cold-season Tornado Risk: Case Studies from November 2016 – February 2017

Friday, 23 June 2017: 1:45 PM
Salon II (InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza)
Samuel J. Childs, Colorado State Univ., Fort Collins, CO

Cold-season (NDJF) tornadoes pose many unique societal risks. For example, people can be caught off-guard because in general one does not expect severe weather and tornadoes during winter months. The public can also be unsuspecting of significant weather due to the bustle of major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, when most people are concerned with family activities and not thinking about the weather. Cold-season tornadoes also have a propensity to be nocturnal and occur most frequently in the South and Southeastern U.S., where variable terrain, inadequate resources, and a relatively high mobile home density add additional social vulnerabilities. Over the period 1953–2015 within a study domain of (25-42.5°N, 75-100°W), some 937 people lost their lives as a result of NDJF tornadoes.

Given this enhanced societal risk for cold-season tornadoes in the South, it is imperative that effective communication is had between local National Weather Service Weather Forecasting Offices (WFOs), television meteorologists and the general public in advance of and during a cold-season tornado event. Local emergency managers (EMs) also play an important role in community preparation as well as recovery and resilience when a major tornado event occurs. As such, this study aims to assess communication strategies and barriers for each of three decision-making sectors (NWS meteorologists, broadcast meteorologists, and EMs) through a post-event survey for significant tornado events taking place during November 2016–February 2017. The survey is unique for each sector and contains both closed and open-ended questions. The respondent is asked to describe the communication strategies, barriers, and collaboration for the tornado event in question, as well as give his or her perspective on community preparedness, vulnerability, and resiliency for the specific tornado event and tornadoes in general. Three case studies over the four months that yielded participation are selected for analysis. Qualitative analysis methods are used for the open-ended questions, along with statistical comparisons of closed-ended questions.

Each of the cases analyzed presented unique circumstances that challenged meteorologists, such as local weather radars failing, nighttime occurrence, and public ignorance due to a missed forecast the day before. In general, both WFO and broadcast meteorologists highlighted the abundance of inconsistent weather messages and graphics as a major barrier to communication. Numerous platforms exist for relaying tornado risk, and each television station, WFO office, and EM agency may use slightly different nomenclature and graphics. Thus, the public can become flooded with too much information that they are unable to sort through, and in turn stop paying attention to potential risk. A “less-is-more” approach in communicating risk between the sectors is desired for overcoming this barrier. According to some respondents, the opposite problem also occurred for the tornado events analyzed. That is, sectors of society without easy access to weather information, such as the elderly or poor, were unable to receive timely warnings and thus were put at greater risk. Each decision-making sector noted a high community vulnerability to tornadoes in general. The WFO and broadcast meteorologists in general also noted a high preparedness and level of receptivity to warnings, whereas EMs tended to rate preparedness and receptivity of their communities much lower. The results also confirm the desire and need for better collaboration, including with social scientists, in order to adequately educate and warn all sectors of society from tornado risk, especially those during times of year they are not typically expected. The results of this study ultimately strive to reduce vulnerability and thus save lives during major tornado events, and potential opportunities for improvement based on the survey findings are explored.

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