Just like the weather, human beings can be unpredictable.
Julie Demuth is a social scientist who studies risk communication and weather at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. While forecasters search for patterns in the atmosphere, she looks for patterns in people's behavior.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Q: Why do some people ignore weather warnings?
A: There really is a gap between the physical science aspect of a hurricane and the human and societal aspects. Communicating the science of the hurricane is not the same as communicating what people need to know to make decisions.
A lot of the research we look at is about the factors that influence people’s perceptions of the hurricane risks and the decisions they make. We’ve found that most people don’t outright ignore any kind of weather warning. People refer to their past experiences, and one of them is Hurricane Irene from last year.
Experience is an area we look at a lot in the field of risk and risk perception. We look at it in conjunction with how people have experienced earthquakes and airline crashes. But weather forecasts offer people really good chances to experience things, build on those experiences, and then apply them in the future. I think that’s something we’re seeing here in this case where people did experience Irene. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as they had anticipated and now they’re trying to apply that.
Unfortunately every event is different. Sandy is quite large. It’s approaching the US at a different angle. There are all these other factors that go into play- so that’s changing the impacts of this event.
Q: What factors influence decisions? What are some of the things that can be barriers to people acting on the information they have?
A: It could be limitations to transportation, so that they can’t evacuate even if they wanted to. They might not have the financial resources to evacuate. We sometimes encourage people to stock up on food or have medications on hand, but for some people, if they had the money to buy a week’s worth of food they would do that, but they don’t necessarily have that ability. There can also be medical limitations that influence whether or not people can evacuate.
One thing that came out really large after Hurricane Katrina, was that we started to understand the role of how important people’s pets are to them. People wouldn’t evacuate and leave their pets behind. Now we’re starting to see agencies like the ASPCA and local humane societies tell people if there are shelters that accept pets.
Another factor is people’s relationships. People don’t necessarily make individual decisions. Often we make them at a household level. We consult with our spouse or our friends and we look to see what they’re doing, and that can influence what we do.
Q: Where do people generally get their weather information?
A: Local media is really key (that’s assuming people have power.) For the most part, in a lot of the surveys we’ve done, local media is number one.
Hurricanes are unique in that a lot of people do know about the National Hurricane Center and they go to their website. There is some evidence that people go to the National Weather Service’s web page, but that information is often communicated via the local broadcast meteorologist.
We’re starting to see with the explosion of new technologies that people are getting information via Twitter and Facebook. They get text messages from each other. It’s an area that’s really new and emerging and we’re trying to wrap our arms around it and how it’s changing the kind of information that people get.
Local public officials often set up guidelines and emergency response actions. I think the local media are really good at either pointing people to their web pages or communicating that information to the public.
Q: Based on your research, what do you think public officials could do better?
A: That’s a good question. We spent a lot of time over the past couple of decades really trying to understanding the physical science of these types of events, and that’s critical. It’s really important.
But we need to then be able to translate that information into what people need to know to take action. They don’t necessarily need to know the low pressure. For some people, hearing information about the maximum sustained winds might not necessarily translate into something obvious they need to do.
One thing the weather service is doing really well is establishing strong partnerships with their emergency managers, other public officials, utility companies and the transportation sector to understand how this type of hurricane event will manifest in terms of power outages and road closures.
People do respond to instructions from public officials. It’s not just about saying, “this is going to be the worst storm ever,” or “this is going to be a Category 1 hurricane,” because that information might not necessarily translate to what people need to know.
A recent NOAA report on Hurricane Irene mentions the need for a sound social science approach to communicating clear weather messages to the public:
Communicating a well-crafted message to the public requires a nuanced understanding of how people interpret specific words in the context of a forecast. NHC, WFOs, and the media used the phrases “weakened into a Tropical Storm” and “downgraded” when describing changes in the meteorological conditions during the progress of Irene, with unintended and unanticipated consequences.