Public’s storm response analyzed

Mar 16, 2009

Florida Keys Keynoter–March 13, 2009 

National weather forecasting officials say they’re trying to learn from how the public responds to severe weather warnings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released a report on a severe tornado outbreak in 2008, but the findings also apply to hurricanes and other severe weather events, officials said.

Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service, said in a statement released Monday, “A number of barriers often deter people from making risk-averse decisions, and we want to learn all we can to determine if there is more the National Weather Service can do to change this.”

NWS meteorologist Robert Molleda in Miami said storm warnings would be worded to focus more on specific dangers that are expected, such as storm surge, flooding, and wind damage. Officials hope that people will be more aware of the dangers and therefore more likely to take action by seeking shelter or evacuating.

The “Super Tuesday” outbreak of 82 tornadoes in February 2008 killed 57 people, injured 350 and caused $400 million in damage.

When hurricanes threaten, the public response can be similar to what officials found with the tornado outbreak, a NOAA spokesman said.

In September, 2008, dozens died when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston, Texas and nearby barrier islands, “even after the weather forecast office in Houston issued a dire warning to residents to heed evacuation orders,” the spokesman said. Many of the victims had remained on a low-lying island where the storm surge destroyed most structures.

The NWS report found that two-thirds of tornado victims were in mobile homes, and 60 percent of those did not have access to safe shelter like a basement or storm cellar.

The majority of the survivors interviewed for the report had taken shelter in the best location available, but most of them also did not have access to safe shelter.

The report also concluded that “many people minimized the threat” they faced because of “optimism bias” – the belief that bad things like storm catastrophes “only happen to other people.”

The assessment team looked at the warnings issued by the weather service and the public’s response. Before the tornado outbreak, the Storm Prediction Center had been monitoring the severe weather threat for several days. Local forecast offices warned communities by issuing hazardous weather outlooks days in advance, the NOAA spokesman said.

People interviewed for the report indicated they were satisfied overall with the performance of the weather service in forecasting the storms and communicating the danger.

Because of the assessment team’s recommendation, the weather service is going to try to improve the wording and “call to action” statements so people will better understand the “urgency and danger” in severe weather situations. The full assessment report is available at os/assessments/.