For years, public education programs, often led by the National Weather Service, have taught members of the public about tornadoes and how to protect themselves when they occur. However, asymmetries in understanding between meteorologists and the public(s) clearly exist, and inspire a variety of local perceptions about tornado threats by the public(s) (in addition to perceptions of the public(s) by meteorologists, and of meteorologists by the public(s)). Examples of these asymmetries include confusion regarding the purpose and policies behind warning sirens, localized beliefs about tornado formation and movement (i.e., the folk science), anecdotal tornado climatologies, beliefs regarding the precision of tornado forecasts (e.g., time of arrival estimates), and more. As meteorologists (including NWS broadcasters, private forecasters, and others) spread their understandings and perceptions of severe weather threats in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the arrival of severe weather, the aforementioned factors play a distinct role in the way this forecast information is interpreted, understood, and acted upon by the public(s) receiving the information.
For our pilot Town Halls we invited anyone in the community who wanted to come and share their thoughts on tornadoes with meteorologists. Upon arrival, individuals answered a short series of questions in a small group setting, to include sections on socio-demographics, general location lived in town, folk science (anecdotally heard and/or believed), and perceptions of local tornado risk. We also conducted a mapping exercise in which they indicated where they thought tornadoes were more or less likely to hit, and to indicate geographic features that they believe may make tornadoes more or less likely to occur. These responses were collected and then a moderator led a large group discussion of the thoughts expressed in the small group setting. Having people write down their general perceptions before the group portion began was done to help to alleviate normative social pressures and draw out areas of disagreement and variety during large group discussion. Town Halls were held in three neighboring towns and individuals were asked about risk perceptions not only for where they live, but also for the other towns. These perceptions were compared across towns to examine agreement and disagreement, and the ways localness helps people frame tornado risk in space around them.
Our pilot Town Halls were conceived as a possible model for the NWS to help its forecasters engage with people in their communities to understand prevalent (and/or contested) notions about tornado risk. Ideal ways to move forward and communicate more effectively may not happen overnight, but without taking a first step to listen in a well-grounded way to what people are thinking, saying, and hearing, forecasters are unlikely to improve the effectiveness of their communications.