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They Had the Facts, Why Didnít They Act: Understanding and Improving Public Response to National Weather Serviceís Coastal Flood Forecast

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Monday, 5 January 2015
Burrell E. Montz, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC; and R. H. Carr, K. Maxfield, S. Hoekstra, K. Semmens, L. Goldman, and S. Frankel

In the face of an incoming high risk storm, it is not enough to have an accurate forecast; it is also necessary to have effective communication of that risk to motivate public action and reduce detrimental effects of the storm's impacts. How to improve public understanding and response to an extreme storm event was the focus of a study recently conducted involving Ocean and Monmouth counties' residents and emergency managers. The study, funded by NOAA Sea Grant, investigated how the public interprets, understands, and responds to the National Weather Service's coastal flood forecast products and tools. Several focus groups were presented with an extreme storm scenario and their discussions and feedback combined with before and after surveys. Most of the participants had experienced Hurricane Sandy, a deadly hurricane in 2012 that resulted in hundreds of deaths and billions in damages. The findings from the focus group sessions informed the revision of the NWS products to enhance visual clarity and easier interpretation of the key data in each tool. In addition, the potential use of the emergency briefing package as a new communication tool for public audiences was tested. This briefing package had been disseminated during Hurricane Sandy and this study wanted to test how it was received by a public audience. A second round of focus groups were then conducted with the revised versions of the forecast products and briefing package to test the improvement in public comprehension and positive response. Several key recommendations are presented to improve visual communication of risk and uncertainty associated with coastal storms and flooding, as well as evidence for the effective use of briefing packages for a public audience. The findings are of interest to a multitude of local, state, and federal agencies concerned with flood and storm forecasting. Improving communication of storm and flooding risk to the public to motivate appropriate action in the face of significant coastal threat will save lives, reduce property loss, and minimize damage costs.