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.

Tornado Season Opens Early in 2012

While I may be rushing the official tornado season this year, I do it with good reason. As of March 12, the NWS had confirmed 132 tornadoes in 2012. The confirmed number is down from the 160 preliminary reports submitted after that date. The 2009 – 2011 total average for the three-month period January – March was 124.

As of March 13, tornadoes had affected Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

EDEN delegates have been hard at work responding to community needs in their states. Situations vary from not enough damage for a federal declaration to total destruction of a community. This YouTube video provides one example of how EDEN is leading recovery efforts in Indiana. You can also see how Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri have responded by reading about their experiences.

Status reports and requests for resources are submitted using Response Notes. The information is sent to our NIFA liaisons and summarized for the EDEN website.

What happens when a request for resources is submitted? After a request is submitted via the Response Notes, an email to EDEN delegates is issued indicating the need for a specific type of resource. For example, Kentucky requested information on how to remove fiberglass from clothing and interior fabrics. Responses to the request were sent directly to one person (in this case, Pat Skinner), who then compiled the responses. The compilation was sent back to the Kentucky delegate and added to the Resources Collected section of the Tornado page for everyone’s use. Note the additional resources collected this year, as well as the resources collected last year.

If you have other resources to help address the current or past tornado recovery issues, please send them to Kim Cassel.

Kim has summarized the tornado resources requested and shared the week of March 12. Here is her summary.

Tornado Resources  Requested and Shared Week of March 12, 2012

The effects of a disaster may have long lasting impacts on one’s mental health well-being, whether the person was directly impacted by the disaster or not.  The stresses created by disasters are beyond the common stresses of everyday life.  The CDC in partnership with the American Red Cross has developed resources for individuals, parents, children, seniors, first responders, health professionals, and community planners to deal with the mental health issues associated with disaster events.

The American Red Cross Disaster Action Teams (DAT) includes specially trained mental health to help folks cope with the emotional issues associated with disasters, man-made or natural.  They also offer  advice for taking care of your emotional health after a disaster and remind folks never to hesitate to seek professional services. Or go to http://www.redcross.org/, click on “getting assistance” “recovery after a disaster” and then “recovering emotionally.”

These resources were developed at LSU to address mental health issues of disasters:

Home, family,and child care

Home, family, and childcare coping strategies

Teacher and educator resources

Removing fiberglass from clothing

How to remove fiberglass from clothing Note this is not an Extension publication.

Social Media

From the University of Missouri , “The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery

Temporary Fencing

From eXtension —   Livestock Fencing



Steps to Tornado Recovery: Returning Home

Destroyed home near Dadeville, AL April 27, 2011 was a day Alabama will remember for a very long time. A series of tornadoes that devastated communities across the central and north parts of the state.  More than 200 people died (still in search and rescue mode) and hundreds of thousands of people were directly impacted. Thirteen percent of the state is still without power.  I was asked for a one-page brochure that contained simple steps on what to do when people went back to their homes to begin picking up the pieces.

Here are the tips I assembled from shared EDEN and Extension resources. If your state was hit by the same series of storms, you may find these useful.

  • Take care of yourself and your family first. Make sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date. Get plenty of fluids, eat right, and try to get enough sleep. Talk to your friends and family—it’s the best stress reliever.
  • Reenter your property safely. Wear clothing appropriate to the task: closed-toe shoes, long pants, leather or work gloves, protective eyewear. Use dust masks/filters to reduce the amount of insulation fibers you might breathe and to protect yourself if you are sensitive to dust or mold.
  • Make sure utilities are turned off or disconnected. Do not enter the area if you smell gas or see downed power lines.
  • Make a record of damage and losses–take pictures or make video recordings.
  • Prevent further damage as much as possible and secure items from theft. If your roof has been exposed and the house is still standing, cover the roof to prevent water damage that may occur later.
  • Contact your insurance agent or company representative.
  • Assemble cleaning supplies and equipment:
    • Buckets
    • Tools (crowbar, hammer, screwdriver)
    • Brooms
    • Shovels
    • Hoes
    • Scoops
    • Wheelbarrow
    • Dolly
    • Bushel baskets
    • Throw-away containers for garbage and containers to carry from house to street
    • Sponge mop or mop that is easily squeezed out
    • Water hose
    • Washtubs for soaking objects
    • Low-suds detergents
    • Bleaches
    • Disinfectants
    • Ammonia
    • Scouring powder
    • Rubber gloves
  • Salvage valuable items first, including the following:
    • Personal identification: birth certificates, driver’s licenses, social security cards, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates
    • Insurance information (life, home, car)
    • Medical/medication information, including eyeglasses, hearing aids, or other items
    • Financial records, such as mortgage papers, property deeds, legal contracts, wills, bank account and credit card information, and utility bills
    • Valuables, such as jewelry, cash, and photos
  • Discard items that cannot be salvaged.
  • Use caution when handling clothing, linens, and other textiles contaminated with fiberglass fibers.
    • Wash items in a bathtub so the fibers go down the drain. Wear rubber gloves to keep the fibers from getting into your fingers.
    • Or put washable items in a washing machine. Be sure to rinse the drum thoroughly to remove fibers.
    • Dry-clean items that would be damaged by water. Alert the dry cleaner that fiberglass is present.
    • Vacuum items to help remove fiberglass fibers.
  • Keep detailed records of extra expenses and business activity during the recovery.

UPDATE by Bill Hoffman – USDA/NIFA: One of the best places to find post-tornado resources (currently) for extension education is the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES) EDEN website.

UPDATE by Virginia Morgan: EDEN has a resources collected section that includes a link to the above as well as links to Missouri resources and other resources affected states have found invaluable in helping their communities recover.