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March 17, 2009

"Optimism bias" could kill you

Sun Photo/Karl Merton Ferron, La Plata 2002The National Weather Service is turning to social science research to figure out why people don't take their severe weather warnings seriously enough, fast enough.

A recent review on the forecast performance and public response during a severe tornado outbreak last year found that the weather warnings were issued in plenty of time for people to take shelter - 17 minutes on average. And there had been days of weather broadcasts about the potential for deadly storms before they finally materialized.

But 57 people died anyway, and 350 were injured. Property damage in the outbreak on Feb. 5-6, 2008 came to $400 million.

It was the second-deadliest rash of tornadoes on record in the U.S. A total of 82 twisters swept through nine Southern states. (The photo at right is from the 2002 tornado in La Plata, Md.)

In reviewing the aftermath, the NWS found that two-thirds of the people who died were in mobile homes, and 60 percent did not have access to a basement or a storm shelter. Some of the survivors interviewed said they discounted the danger because they didn't consider February to be part of the traditional "tornado season." Others said they spent time trying to confirm the tornado warning, and sought shelter only after they saw the funnel cloud coming.

Many others, the report said, minimized the danger they were in due to what sociologists call "optimism bias" - the tendency to be over-optimistic about the outcome of one's plans. Or, put another way, it's the belief that bad things only happen to "other people." That reminds me of the comment reporters often hear from survivors of violent crime or violent weather - "You read about these things happening to other people, but you never think it will happen to you."

Well, it can, and it does.

The post-storm assessment team recommended that the NWS improve the wording and "call-to-action" statements in their warnings to "more effectively convey the urgency and danger of the message. The agency will also continue using social science research ... to further understand people's interpretation of and response to severe weather situations and to improve public response..."

Perhaps that led to the language in the memorable warning issued last September when Hurricane Ike was approaching Galveston, Texas, with a predicted 20-foot storm surge:

"Persons not heeding evacuation orders in singe-family, one- or two-story homes will face certain death," it said.

The storm surge wasn't quite that high, but it swept parts of the Texas coast clear, and dozens of people died. More vanished. Here's Bolivar Beach:

National Weather Service/Houston-Galveston office

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:22 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Research


Maybe it's because the TV news teasers make every weather event sound so dire: Snow expected! Tune in at 11 for all the latest snow coverage! Only to find that the snow isn't that much or even in our area. Ever hear of the Boy Who Cried Wolf?

Good point jain. The news is often filled with taglines such as "a new food that could kill you... story at 11", and it's nothing to be concerned about in the end. There's a lot of sensationalism out there and perhaps people have become numb to it.

I still feel that a lot of the problems with natural disasters is people feeling a sense of invincibility. People may tend to believe "I don't know about anyone else, but I'M gonna be fine."

There are also people who just never want to leave their home and their belongings. I guess that would be more the case with hurricanes, since 17 minutes is not exactly a large enough window of time to get out of Dodge.

Local media in actual Tornado Alley may behave more responsibly, but the talking heads on the local Baltimore stations start yelling for people to head for shelter as soon as "conditions are right" for tornado formation. They are the classic example of the boy who cried wolf -- no one pays any attention to them any more. Otherwise, if we listened to them, we'd spend the entire summer cowering in our basements in a region that realistically sees one F1 tornado every couple of years. Local TV is completely irresponsible for the sake of ratings when it comes to storm alerts.

I think it/s a BIG mistake for the NWS to issue warnings along the lines, "IF YOU STAY...YOU WILL DIE."

Forecasts are notoriously fickle. Too much doom and glooming where things don/t pan out breeds even more complacency. Wolf-wolf!

NWS would be better served by paying more attention to pre-event educational **campaigns**. As it stands now...on-station personnel write long missives and hold awareness events at the start of the season...then go back in their caves.

The fact that events such as the one described above demonstrate just how poorly the NWS is doing it/s job in this area. These 'social factors' ("Call for Action" NWS c.1970) have been known for decades..yet here were are..again...with a large numbers of deaths that could have been avoided.

The public would be better served with better situational awareness well ahead of the ultimate event.

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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