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How disaster warnings can get your attention

Tim Henderson, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

"The idea is that you cut back on the number, so you don't get the public desensitized," Roman said. Warnings about more routine floods will still go out in other forms but won't buzz the area's cellphones.

The background noise of too many warnings can be just as dangerous as no warning at all.

"There are all these warnings and people are still driving into floodwaters," said W. Craig Fugate, a Federal Emergency Management Agency chief during the Obama administration and a former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

"You can say 'Turn around, don't drown,' but there are so many flash flood warnings that people tune them out and don't realize this one is more destructive," Fugate said. "Breaking through the noise is the challenge."

Impact-based warnings are already in place for tornadoes.

The idea came up after tornadoes killed 553 people across the country in 2011, the worst year since 1925, with more than 400 deaths in Alabama and Missouri alone, despite warnings in place in most cases.

 

When the National Weather Service interviewed people in Joplin, Missouri, where 158 people had died, they heard that most residents relied on community tornado sirens to learn of an approaching twister, and turned to other sources like friends or television for confirmation before seeking shelter.

The service concluded that shorter, more specific warnings would prompt more people to protect themselves, and the warnings went national in 2018 after a demonstration project in the South.

But not everyone agrees. Klockow McClain, who is both a meteorologist and a social scientist stationed in Oklahoma for the National Severe Storms Laboratory, is a skeptic about impact-based warnings, calling them "fear-based."

"You can't control people and force them into taking certain actions through fear," Klockow McClain said, adding that warnings should include more specifics on what people should do, not just the impacts that could result from a storm.

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