Tornado Warnings Don’t Adequately Prepare Mobile Home Residents

Steve Miller

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Original article: Tornado Warnings Don’t Adequately Prepare Mobile Home Residents - Eos

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Mobile homes are death traps in a tornado. And yet new research shows that residents across the southeastern United States, where mobile homes make up nearly 20% of the housing stock, don’t have the information or resources they need to safely respond to a twister.

More than half of mobile home residents don’t know the best place to take shelter. Many don’t have a community shelter to get to. And mobile home residents don’t perceive tornadoes as any worse a threat than their neighbors in permanent homes, despite data indicating that nationwide, they are nearly twice as likely to die in a tornado.

“We know a lot about how corporations can protect their reputations, but we know comparably a lot less about how governments can help protect the public during extreme events,” says Brooke Liu, a risk communications researcher at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Liu and her colleagues recently conducted a survey of tornado awareness among about 3,000 mobile and permanent-home residents in 12 states throughout the Southeast. Their findings, published 29 March in Weather, Climate, and Society, show that current communication strategies have a lot of room for improvement.

Eos spoke with Liu about her findings. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Eos: What jumped out at you about these responses?

Liu: First, mobile home residents and fixed-home residents had no significant difference in their risk perception. And yet one of those two categories has a much higher risk. That’s fairly alarming.

Second, a large portion of mobile home residents did not know what they should be doing [in a tornado], nor did fixed-home residents. The communities as a whole didn’t have the level of knowledge you would hope they would have.

And the third thing is people with fixed homes were seeking and receiving more information than those in mobile homes. The people that need the most information are apparently not getting the information.

Broadcast meteorologists tend to be the public’s most trusted source when it comes to severe weather because they have that personal connection [with their audience]. That’s a call to action for the [National] Weather Service to keep on partnering with these broadcast meteorologists, especially in the preparedness or watch stage.

Eos: Do we know where this difference in risk perception comes from?

Liu: Some of it could be risk avoidance. If you feel like you can’t do anything, then why even think about it? Also, it could just be because these events don’t happen that often [in the Southeast].

In one of the questions, we asked, “Here is a sample tornado watch you could receive. What would you do?” And a lot of people said, “Well, we would pray.” This is the Bible Belt, so that should not be surprising. But if you have 12 minutes to respond, that’s a concern.

On the other hand, if the natural inclination for a decent proportion of people is to pray, then let’s have the faith-based leaders come in and start providing some education and resources, like at shelters and churches.

How do I take shelter? That’s when those broadcast meteorologists, those faith-based leaders, even community leaders within mobile home communities can come in and start providing some educational resources.

Eos: How do you bridge that knowledge gap when people think there’s nothing they can do?

Liu: It’s really in the messaging. If you look at most National Weather Service messaging right now, it’s “tornado watch, take shelter now.” Okay. How do I take shelter? That’s when those broadcast meteorologists, those faith-based leaders, even community leaders within mobile home communities can come in and start providing some educational resources.

A lot of it’s in the pre-event outreach from the National Weather Service and then during an event partnering with other sources. We know that people need multiple sources before they take action. So even if the National Weather Service was able to send out the perfect message, having that amplified with these other trusted sources, people are more likely to take action.

Eos: Were there any specific gaps in tornado knowledge that jumped out at you?

Liu: What mobile home residents should do, and where to shelter in your house if you have a fixed home. Where mobile home residents should go is to a safe structure outside of their homes, and about half of the population in both samples got that wrong. That’s really problematic.

And then tornado mythology or folklore: I can shelter in this part of my house, like a left corner of a basement. Actually, you don’t want to be in a corner. Typically, you want to be in the center. Even if they knew they should shelter in their basement, there was some missed knowledge.

Eos: So what’s the next step?

Liu: [For an upcoming paper] we hung out with Weather Service folks, [and] we just observed how are they communicating severe weather. And they’re doing all these techniques that are not in the academic research. They’re creating, on the fly, their own strategies, which may or may not be working. Future research is to experimentally test these strategies and see if they actually work.

“We need to work on preparedness as a nation. Americans don’t prepare.”

The other key takeaway is we need to work on preparedness as a nation. Americans don’t prepare. If tornadoes don’t matter for them, what are the major hazards that they face? Have they thought about a family disaster plan? These are all things that no one wants to think about. [But] disasters can happen.

So it’s not a bad idea to think about: What could you be doing for your family and your community to make people safer?

Christopher Crockett (@CosmicThespian), Science Journalist
 
May 18, 2013
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I take issue with the headline and quotes like "don’t have the information or resources they need to safely respond to a twister." Ture, a lot of folks don't have the monetary resources to have a storm shelter or a reliable vehicle to get out of the storms path. but the information is there. Every tornado warning I have seen in recent times says things like "MOBILE HOMES WILL BE DAMAGED OR DESTROYED" and provide good information on what to do "TAKE COVER NOW! IF YOU ARE OUTDOORS, IN A MOBILE HOME, OR IN A VEHICLE, MOVE TO THE CLOSEST SUBSTANTIAL SHELTER NOW! GET TO AN INTERIOR ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF A STURDY BUILDING AND AVOID
WINDOWS." Granted all broadcast media may not always relay that, but the NWS sure does. I really think this is just another case of "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink". Even when the info is there, that doesn't mean folks will make good choices.
 
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James K

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Last summer I heard one of those emergency alerts come across the radio, for a tornado warning.
The computer that was talking seemed to give fairly good information on what to do. I think it even said something about mobile homes.
I always listen to those reports - more out of curiosity as to where/what it is (probably relates back to the fascination I've always had with storms).
I have zero worry that a tornado would ever hit my area. A severe t-storm containing hail, yes I do worry about that.
 
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Trust of public institutions is lower in some socio-economic circles (previous studies, UAH, et al). Article is right we should try to connect with everyone in ways they trust. Faith based is a good start. Community leaders have a role. Also believe mobile home parks should have a mandatory tornado shelter, no grandfather exemptions.

Finally social media or forums like this one play a role. NEVER get warnings from social media; have a better first alarm. However confirmation and personalization of the risk can be accomplished online. Most of us have friends who trust us for weather info.
 

K. Gentry

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EDIT: There were more cordial and concise ways to say what I wanted to say...

I can't see the full article (I imagine AMS members may), but the linked study abstract paints a different vibe:
'Cry wolf effect? Evaluating the impact of false alarms on public responses to tornado alerts in the Southeastern United States' study abstract said:
...Contrary to prior research, findings indicate that concerns about false alarm ratios generating a complacent public may be overblown. Results show that Southeastern U.S. residents estimate tornado warnings to be more accurate than they are. Participants’ perceived false alarm ratios are not correlated with actual county false alarm ratios. Counterintuitively, the higher individuals perceive false alarm ratios and tornado alert accuracy to be, the more likely they are to take protective behavior such as sheltering in place in response to tornado warnings....
Regardless of warning "accuracy," isn't responding what is desired? I agree that there's a lot that can change for the better, but I think it's important to not ignore what was found in totality: That more people than thought react accordingly to the warning at hand , even if they understand the probabilities of an actual tornado forming. In my opinion, the study author's conclusion that The summary statement “We need to work on preparedness as a nation. Americans don’t prepare," doesn't mesh fully with the very findings of their study, but can be thought of as separate from reacting to a warning, which they found positive results for.

In one of the questions, we asked, “Here is a sample tornado watch you could receive. What would you do?” And a lot of people said, “Well, we would pray.” This is the Bible Belt, so that should not be surprising. But if you have 12 minutes to respond, that’s a concern.
I bet that they were likely witty responses underscoring the danger of the situation. Prayer should be a non-concerning response from anyone of any faith. You can have a prayer in your heart whilst readying for the possibility of getting hit. Plus again, it found that people may OVER-react to tornado warnings. I think the study author's statements side toward contradiction.

Liu said:
Eos: How do you bridge that knowledge gap when people think there’s nothing they can do?
Liu: It’s really in the messaging. If you look at most National Weather Service messaging right now, it’s “tornado watch, take shelter now.”
This was the second time in the article where the study author mixed 'warning' with 'watch.' This illustrates a continued, long-term issue with social science and communication with weather: the difference between a watch and a warning. I've attended a E-Prep seminar with a NWS WFO involved, and they are very aware of this.

I understand the highlighting of mobile-home resident's perception of danger being the same as fixed-home residents, as it says one in a mobile home is twice as likely to die from a tornado. But I would take it as a success that more people than thought, react positively (as in, the action that is recommended) toward warning issuance.

Liu: [For an upcoming paper] we hung out with Weather Service folks, [and] we just observed how are they communicating severe weather. And they’re doing all these techniques that are not in the academic research.
Virtually all warnings AND TV personnel go-over recommended courses of action. I don't know if 'false-alarm' ratios can be improved, as few supercells produce tornadoes (and to be quite frank, you WANT there to always be 'false-alarms'), but I'd say that steps are being made in the right direction.
 
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rdale

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I think part of the issue with your last line is that “tornado watch” is only followed by “take shelter now” when a warning is issued. That gap can be 1-4 hours (or more!) Yet all that time the NWS knows that the line is 4 hours away. There’s no “interim” product to go from watch to warning.

Thankfully a lot of that will change with FACETS.