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How disaster warnings can get your attention

Tim Henderson, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

But with the area's history as part of Oklahoma's Tornado Alley, residents are not complacent about the threat, Skidmore said. The county provides shelters in public schools for people who need them, like mobile home residents.

"People here are always looking at the sky and turning on the TV, and the news outlets here do a really good job of keeping people up to date and telling them what they need to do," Skidmore said. "There's no sense of complacency here."

Familiarity breeds caution along flood-prone creeks in the North Carolina mountains, said David Vance, Avery County's emergency management coordinator.

"People who live along these creeks watch very carefully and know when it's time to get away," said Vance, adding that the county has a "reverse 911" system to automatically call homes with flood alerts.

Even in the area south of Dublin, Texas, where the Ramirez tragedy unfolded in April, residents near the road know that heavy rain can cause treacherous floods, said Erath County's emergency management coordinator, Susan Driskill.

After heavy rain the night before and a severe thunderstorm watch issued about 3 a.m. that day, state transportation workers had barricaded flooded roads, but the road Ramirez took had not yet flooded at that time, Driskill said.

The Ramirez family was coming from nearby Comanche County, making a special trip to a hospital where a dental operation with anesthesia was scheduled for one of the children, Driskill said.

"Those creeks can rise very quickly. Folks around here are aware of that," said Driskill, adding that residents follow the county's Facebook page for alerts and call her to report flooding or grass fires that threaten homes.

"They don't like to evacuate. They're going to stay with their property," she said of the area's residents, including many dairy farmers who make the county one of the state's top milk producers.

 

Meteorologists have recently begun to recognize the need to sharpen weather predictions to get attention in areas where residents may not be used to life-threatening storms. Klockow McClain said social science-oriented meteorologists like herself are still in the "diagnosis phase" and don't have all the answers yet on what will motivate people to act more consistently on unexpected disaster warnings.

Klockow McClain's work is funded by the government and aimed at helping develop a future system of feedback from disaster survivors about the warnings they heard and how they reacted, she said. The Lee County, Alabama, emergency services director, Kathrine Carson, said she was surprised to hear some people may not have evacuated, since there were more people than usual in a church basement shelter near the hardest-hit area.

Keith Seitter, director of the American Meteorological Society, said meteorologists look to research like Klockow McClain's for guidance on how to tailor future warnings for maximum effect.

"This is an issue for all meteorologists, and we take it very seriously," Seitter said.

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