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Studies in Applied Geography and Spatial Analysis

Addressing Real World Issues

Edited by Robert Stimson and Kingsley E. Haynes

This timely and fascinating book illustrates how applied geography can contribute in a multitude of ways to assist policy processes, evaluate public programs, enhance business decisions, and contribute to formulating solutions for community-level problems.
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Chapter 19: Assessing responses to National Weather Service warnings: the case of a tornado

Burrell E. Montz


Geographers have been involved in hazard research for decades, with many contributions having application in the realm of policy development. At the same time, geographers undertaking hazard research have worked to understand human responses to events, with an eye to developing warning messages and protocols that elicit appropriate actions by those at risk. The United States National Weather Service (NWS) has recognized the importance of this understanding, particularly with ‘shortfuse’ events such as tornadoes and flash floods that provide little time for reaction once a warning is issued. As a result, the NWS has incorporated social scientists – in many cases geographers – in a number of its activities. One of these is the Service Assessments that are sometimes undertaken following severe weather events. This chapter describes an NWS assessment in which the author served as an outside expert. The goal was to discover why people died in what was seen as a well-warned tornado event. The science behind the warning was sound, as both the lead time and the accuracy of the warnings were sufficient. This raised questions about human responses to the warnings, which in turn led to the establishment of an assessment team comprised of meteorologists and a geographer. The team worked together in the area affected by the tornado to develop an understanding of what happened and why, from both a warning perspective (meteorology) and a response perspective (social science). The chapter describes the collaboration that occurred through this process. Background on Service Assessments and on our understanding of human responses to warnings is provided, followed by a description of the event, the methods used, and the findings of the field work undertaken by the team.

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