92nd American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting (January 22-26, 2012)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012: 2:00 PM
The May 22, 2011 Tornado Event in Joplin: Societal Aspects of Risk Perception and Warning Response
Room 252/253 (New Orleans Convention Center )
Jennifer Spinney, Social Science Woven into Meteorology, Norman, OK; and R. Wagenmaker, B. Hale, J. Weaver, and G. Garnet

On May 22, 2011 a tornado traveling at maximum speeds of approximately 200 mph carved a six by one half mile path through the City of Joplin, Missouri, killing 160 people and injuring over 1000. Following this event a Regional Service Assessment was initiated and a small interdisciplinary team of meteorologists and social scientists were deployed to Joplin in order to learn local perspectives of the event and to determine what more could be done by the National Weather Service (NWS) to limit fatalities and injuries from future EF4/EF5 tornadoes.

From June 7-9, 2011, the Assessment team interviewed over 60 survivors from Joplin's general public and an additional 40 individuals representing local Emergency Management for Joplin and surrounding areas; local print, radio, and television media; NWS employees; Joplin city officials; fire and law enforcement dispatchers; and employees and patrons from numerous area businesses, schools, and hospitals. Following a semi-structured interview protocol, each team member conducted interviews in person or over the telephone, and where possible, interviews were audio recorded. The Service Assessment's Team Lead then assigned interview transcription, analysis, and synthesis responsibilities among team members.

This talk will focus on the insights provided by the general public, such as when each residential participant learned the potential for severe weather and/or a tornado existed, as well as if and how that knowledge may have changed their behavior and decision making in the days, hours, and minutes leading up to the tornado. Although this was an event warned by the NWS, analysis of our interview data showed residents conceptualized ‘warnings' much more broadly than that which was issued by official sources. For example, many residents noted receiving multiple warning signals at differing points in time including physical observations in their environment and, most notably, activation of Joplin's outdoor warning sirens. The various signals influenced residents' appraisals of the situation, prompted differing perceptions of risk, and led to differing degrees of protective action. Thus, special emphasis will be placed here on how individuals interpreted the threat of severe weather and how these interpretations either amplified or attenuated perceptions of risk and influenced individual warning responses.

The results of this portion of the Assessment highlight the non-linear process of risk perception and warning response, and demonstrate that opportunities exist to enhance the effectiveness of ‘warning' transmission during severe weather events.

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