Research Briefs

Tornado warnings and public response

The funnel cloud of a tornado

The distinctive funnel-shaped cloud of a tornado

The 2008 Super Tuesday tornado outbreak—so named because it began on Tuesday, February 5, when 24 states were holding primary elections and caucuses—swept through several southern states and the lower Ohio Valley, killing 57 people. NCAR scientist Julie Demuth helped the National Weather Service assess the societal impacts of the deadly tornadoes. The NWS undertakes these “service assessments” after major weather events, seeking input from government agencies, emergency managers, the media, and the public.

Julie served as the societal impacts representative on a team of 11 contributors, including nine NWS employees and an emergency manager from Kansas. In the weeks following the tornado outbreak, the team went into the field, where Julie conducted in-person and phone interviews with the public. The objective was to discover as much as possible about the 57 fatalities and to interview survivors to assess their knowledge, perceptions, and decision making regarding the event.

NOAA released a report on March 9, 2009, based on the team’s findings and recommendations. “Service Assessment of the Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak of February 5-6, 2008,” analyzes forecasting performance and public response during the event and addresses a key area of concern: better understanding of people’s behavior when warnings are issued during severe weather events.

The assessment team found that most people were aware of the dangerous weather threat and received warnings of the tornadoes. For many people, a single source of information did not spur them to take protective action; rather, they used multiple sources to assess their personal risks. Although most people who received warnings did ultimately take cover in the best locations available to them, lack of adequate shelter was a problem as the majority of the survivors did not have access to safe ones (basements, storm cellars, or safe rooms) and two-thirds of the victims were in mobile homes.  

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