A report just released by the National Weather Service might
hold interest for stormwater managers, especially in areas where severe
flooding, tornados, or hurricanes are common: It examines why people don’t pay
attention to storm warnings.
focuses specifically on the more than 80 tornados last February—called the Super
Tuesday outbreak because they coincided with the presidential primary
elections—that affected nine states, killing 57 people and injuring 350.
It’s not that people didn’t get
the message. Even though they reported hearing the news in a number of different
ways—television, radio, word of mouth, and even emergency sirens—many didn’t
seek shelter. The report reveals that many people who were killed or injured
were aware of the danger but had no safe place to go—about two-thirds were in
mobile homes with no basements—but others simply assumed the threat was
exaggerated; some, for example, thought that because tornados are uncommon in
February, these must not be very serious. Others looked for shelter only after
they actually saw a tornado coming.
“Protecting life and property is not as simple as
issuing a forecast,” National Weather Service director Jack Hayes notes. The
National Weather Service and its parent agency, the National Oceanographic and
Atmospheric Administration, use techniques from the social sciences to figure
out why people don’t heed their messages—and how to improve the warnings so
people are more likely to take them seriously. Teams routinely visit areas
affected by severe weather events soon after they occur to interview residents,
emergency managers, and members of the media. They conducted one such exercise
last September after Hurricane Ike caused deaths in Galveston, trying to
understand why more people didn’t evacuate when ordered to.
Other local governments have tried
extreme and attention-getting means to make people take notice. For example,
Clark County, Nevada—Las Vegas’s county, which until recently had one of the
highest rates of growth in the country—got thousands of newcomers who couldn’t
believe that flooding could be a danger in the desert. So many of them tried to
drive through flooded roads that the county launched a billboard campaign a few years
ago showing partially submerged cars, with captions like “Not to Be Used as a
Flotation Device” and “I.Q. Testing in Progress.”
What types of storm warnings have
you observed to be most effective in your area?