J2.4 Tornado Stories in Central Oklahoma – Town Hall Meetings to Help Understand Local Knowledge and Beliefs

Wednesday, 9 January 2013: 4:45 PM
Room 19A (Austin Convention Center)
Kimberly E. Klockow, Univ. of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; and R. A. Peppler, R. Smith, N. C. Grams, A. Cannon, and R. A. McPherson

Building upon interview research conducted in Alabama and Mississippi following the April 27, 2012, tornado outbreak and what we learned about the local knowledge of and beliefs held about tornadoes by people there, which we termed “folk science”, we devised and conducted several pilot Town Hall meetings in central Oklahoma in summer 2012 to help learn the thoughts of people in another tornado-prone area who have been exposed to several tornadoes the past dozen years. Our April 27 findings, presented at AMS in 2012, in which we introduced geographic theories about place and psychological theories regarding risk judgment and perception, revealed place based and culturally situated environmental knowledges that have been acquired and developed by people living in a place over a long period of time. We chose the term “folk science” instead of “weather myths” to characterize this knowledge as it connotes a positive description of the their knowledge and beliefs, a point of view critical for framing people as not hopelessly misinformed but rather as empowered in their relationships to place and to one another. Recent studies suggest that place identity and sense of place can play a significant role in shaping perceptions of risk and perceptions of local climatology, so this local element may be critical.

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.

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