Severe Weather Warnings: Is the Public Tuning Out?

May 23, 2011, 7:55 PM, Posted by

Did some residents of Joplin, Missouri, where at least 90 people were killed by a tornado yesterday, ignore messages forecasting the potential for life threatening weather? Researchers at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be investigating that as part of their research on how best to communicate information about severe weather emergencies to citizens and communities. The researchers are trying to determine whether there is a disconnect between messages sent out by NOAA and the danger level perceived by citizens.

Harold Brooks, Ph.D., research meteorologist at the Laboratory, says the number of overturned vehicles in Joplin, as well as the number of people found dead in the rubble of collapsed stores, suggests that some weather messages may not have been heeded. A tornado watch—meaning a tornado could occur and precautions should be taken—was issued four hours before the Joplin tornado hit. And a tornado warning—meaning a threat is imminent and people should get to safety immediately—was sent out thirty minutes before. “Stringent attention to those messages means people should be getting to safety as quickly as possible,” says Brooks.

Brooks says the research questions on weather messages were prompted by studies showing that while deaths from severe weather declined between the mid 1920s and the mid 1990s, deaths have now plateaued. “And that plateau is coming at a time when the weather information has really gotten better and better,” Brooks says.

One possibility? Message fatigue. People may hear messages about potential severe weather conditions that then doesn’t materialize and so tune out the next time there’s an urgent warning.

But Brooks says there are actually few of those messages per season. He says, for example, most regions only get tornado watch messages 10 to 15 times per year, and warnings 2-3 times a year. A question for the researchers, though, is whether even that relatively small number may be too many. Other issues:

  • People often assume even with dire messages that they won’t be harmed and so don’t take precautions.
  • Messages may be sent to a too-wide audience so many listeners or viewers hear weather messages that don’t impact their city or county and then may tune out even when their specific location is at risk.
  • People may not get the messages because they are listening to programmed music or watching DVDs, rather than tuning into local information through television, radio or internet news channels.

Brooks advises people to have a general idea about each week’s and day’s weather forecast , especially during severe weather seasons, so that they can get warning messages if they are released, and to pay attention to their own region’s preparedness information. The Missouri State Health Department, for example, has a very content-laden preparedness site with detailed information on six potential weather emergencies.

“Being prepared won’t necessarily prevent all deaths and injuries,” says Brooks. “During the recent storms in Alabama, it looks like people did all the right things and we still had loss of lives and limbs. But paying attention to the weather and heeding messages could put you in the safest situation possible, and quite possibly save your life.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.