The complex psychology behind keeping Californians safe in a megastorm

Katie Lauer, Bay Area News Group on

Published in Weather News

Despite desperate pleas from California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the dangers of extreme weather, and weeks of advance warnings from meteorologists, the relentless series of storms drenching California has already claimed more lives than the death toll from the past two years of wildfires.

So how do people still get caught in the crosshairs of megastorms that have proven their ability to flood cars, ravage homes and claim lives? Have Californians — once roundly ridiculed as weather wimps — already become jaded to atmospheric rivers and overconfident that they can handle the hazards?

Meteorologists only really started digging into complicated questions about weather psychology like these around 20 years ago, according to Rebecca Morss, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

There’s a long list of reasons why people either can’t stay home in this extreme weather, or simply choose not to, so researchers are focusing on the best ways to help people recognize the risks. They want to avoid normalizing extreme events, or making people so afraid of weather reports that they shut down and reject the information entirely.

“Different people are going respond to different information in totally different ways — some people really trust authorities and science, some people don’t,” Morss said, explaining how political and cultural views complicate weather warnings. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I think if this were an easy problem, we probably would have solved it by now.”

While scientific knowledge and forecast technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, Morss said crafting messaging that encourages emergency preparation without overstating the risks — a sure way to lose the public’s trust — is still a challenge, especially as extreme weather events become more frequent across the country due to climate change.

This messaging — and the collective response to it — has shifted significantly over the last few decades.

A lack of official warnings was partially to blame for hundreds of deaths during a 1976 flash flood in Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon. But by 2011, after one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history ripped through Missouri, researchers concluded that many residents had become desensitized to sirens and warnings.

Morss’ work focuses not only on the social science of how people make decisions when hazardous weather is on the horizon, but — maybe more importantly — what kind of information can help them make better choices.

At a basic level, she said it’s important to avoid meteorologist jargon, steer clear of complex information and repeat messaging to help people avoid finding themselves in a tragic situation.

“A lot of people have seen extreme weather on TV or been close to it, but how many of us have really experienced a truly life-threatening situation due to weather?” Morss pointed out. “It’s really hard to know exactly where (flooding) is going to happen, and it’s also just really hard for a person to imagine the place that they know and see every day suddenly being under all this water.”

Storms are unpredictable, she said, and it can be hard for someone to reliably judge when a normally safe roadway or other location has become an unsafe one — until it’s too late.

“We’ve all done things that we look back on afterwards and say, ‘Wow, I was so lucky,’” Morss said.

Significant storm systems in California are a routine occurrence, but Warren Blier, a meteorologist and science officer with the National Weather Service in Monterey, immediately knew the current set of storms was different.

“One day in late December, I was looking at computer model output through the extended portion of the forecast, and I remember thinking, ‘I just don’t see an end to this,’” Blier said. “What was so extraordinary was that even early on, it was starting to look to me like the possibility of just system after system after system.”


It was the first time he remembers seeing that kind of forecast since the El Niño winter of 1997-98.

“Astonished, that would be too strong,” Blier said of his reaction, “but it was more of a ‘wow’ moment — a series of ‘wow’ moments.”

While these weather conditions might generate more of a shrug for people in other parts of the country — from the Rockies and the Great Plains to the East Coast — there’s more potential for extreme impacts in a more vulnerable state like California.

He said it’s all about what people have learned and prepared for over time.

“I think people from other parts of the country who don’t routinely experience significant earthquakes find it a little mind-boggling that it doesn’t discomfort people here more, and the reverse is true when it comes to the weather stuff,” Blier said. “In Minnesota, you kind of know what weather you’re going to have, and things are designed around that. But for a generally reasonable, pleasant climate in California, when you suddenly throw in all these winds and all this water, (the state) is not really designed to accommodate all that because it’s not what routinely occurs.”

One of the most important developments in recent years is more collaboration between meteorologists and local emergency management workers — sharing weather expertise and predictions, and seeking out the best ways to disseminate that information to the community.

Daily weather briefings from the National Weather Service are sent to people like Kia Xiong, Santa Clara County’s emergency risk communications officer, who helps coordinate resources when those forecasts trigger the county’s inclement weather plans.

She said those plans activate outreach teams to reach unsheltered communities, especially along the creeks and waterways, while other public information officers blast messaging over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NextDoor and the county’s website.

Xiong said they stick to static posts with text and a photo — avoiding videos and gifs that relay information too slowly — to share what is happening, what people need to do and a URL or phone number to access resources. These posts are translated into English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Tagalog, and include accessibility features like alt-text.

“That’s how we made sure that we’re reaching a broad audience and that no one is missed,” Xiong said. “The pandemic certainly changed the way we push out messaging, because now we have to make sure that all of our documentation, all of our social media posts, all of our graphics are accessible to everyone.”

But at the end of the day, community members are left to assess risks for themselves.

“Sometimes people do look out the window and see that it’s not raining as hard as the weather service or public government is saying,” Xiong said. “So it really is up to community members themselves to make those decisions.

“We can only say, ‘Hey, stay off the road’ so many times.”


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