Why do people ignore tornado warnings?

Why do so many people seemingly ignore severe weather warnings, especially tornado warnings?  That was one of the questions explored at the recent National Severe Weather Workshop.  The event was sponsored by the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma with assistance from other NWS offices.

The weather service is fearful that the public may not be taking tornado and other weather warnings seriously.  On one hand they are concerned that the warnings not be seen as “crying wolf,” while, on the other hand, as we have seen during the April outbreak of tornadoes, the text of warning announcements and their timing has become much more dramatic and explicit in order to grab the attention of the public.

Over the past year, especially after the Tuscaloosa and Joplin tornadoes, social scientists have been engaged by the weather service and others to help improve the warning response by the public.  Early indications, as reported at the workshop, are that receiving a warning through the NOAA All-Hazards Radios (formerly known as weather radios), or from a local media source, by itself is not sufficient to cause some people to take protective action.

Research is indicating that individuals need to receive a message from multiple sources, perhaps 8 or more, before making an appropriate response.  How can that realistically be accomplished?  The good news is that such information as the weather forecast a day or two out that mentions the possibility of severe weather counts as a source.  If one sees it on TV or hears it on the radio, that’s a message.  If one reads it on the Internet, that’s another message.  A Tornado Watch may be message #3.  News of storms causing damage in nearby counties could be message #4.  A text alert to a cell phone might be message number 5.  A Tornado Warning broadcast via the weather radio could be #6. Coverage during the storm by local media outlets might be message #7 and sounding the local sirens would count as message 8 in this scenario.  An actual storm in progress, even if one cannot see the tornado is another message as would, of course, be an actual siting of a funnel cloud.

It is the totality of the messages mentioned above that triggers a response to take shelter or other appropriate action.  Research is showing that any one or two alone, might not be sufficient.  Why?  Individuals may have become desensitized by the perceived increase in tornado warnings issued by local NWS offices based on radar indications of possible tornadoes. The weather service is working on improvements to Doppler radar and providing more specific geographic warning information to try to limit any perception of false alarms..

Wall-to-wall media coverage of storm chasing efforts may also contribute to a view that tornadoes are somehow less special and therefore less worthy of attention.  The natural curiosity of folks who want to watch an approaching storm, take pictures and shoot video must also be considered.  Just this past Tuesday, May 1, we had multiple funnel clouds and a few tornadoes from an isolated storm here in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and the surrounding area.  The volume of photos and videos submitted to local media and posted on Facebook and You Tube was astounding and frightening.  These people were not taking appropriate action even though the warning sirens were sounded TWICE which is highly unusual.

The research is ongoing as to the reasons for complacency and possible responses to them, but it seems to already show that greater efforts must be paid to cutting through the clutter and encouraging people to respond quickly and appropriately.  That’s where EDEN and Extension can play a roll.  As educators and communicators we need to help craft messages that explain both how serious the hazards are and how individuals should respond at home, in the workplace, at school, while traveling, while in public places, etc.  The concepts aren’t complicated, but we need to work with local emergency management agencies and other first responders to help push education through our existing channels.  Every program area can contribute.  If the weather service, responders and educators work together, perhaps the number of messages needed before people take action can be reduced.