What makes people listen to severe weather warnings?

CHARLOTTE — Deaths from natural disasters have massively declined worldwide over the past century, going from hundreds of thousands a year to tens of thousands, and that’s because people are getting more of a heads-up when severe weather is coming.

That’s thanks in large part to improved forecasting, which can give people valuable time to get out of harm’s way. But that’s only effective as long as the right messaging reaches them at the right time.

Robert Prestley from the National Center for Atmospheric Research studies what factors into the “right messaging.” It’s a field known as risk communication.

“Warning is one of the most powerful tools that we have,” Prestley said. “There’s always ways to improve. There’s always ways to get people to take threats more seriously.”

Prestley said it starts with trusted sources. From state and national emergency managers to the National Weather Service, to local fire, police, and city staff to local meteorologists collaborating on forecasting, developing emergency plans and getting the word out to communities in the path of severe weather.

“Messaging really has to be tailored to specific audiences,” he said.

To Prestley, that means understanding what a specific community has dealt with in the past. For example, a community that’s experienced multiple heavy snowstorms will have a better idea of what to expect than one that gets a snowstorm every few years. Alternatively, it’s important to communicate what makes each specific threat unique.

The research shows one of the biggest turnoffs to the public is “crying wolf” or sensationalizing a forecasted weather event by making things appear more dangerous than the weather models can reasonably predict.

“There’s a concern with that, especially when it intersects with communities that have had recent experiences, recent negative experiences with extreme weather events,” Prestley said.

He said it’s more important for forecasters and emergency communicators to express uncertainty in the forecast and to be transparent about what they know and when they may know more.

At the same time, Prestley said that doesn’t mean anyone should downplay the risks.

As an example was the recent severe storm from January 9, when a sudden, short-lived tornado touched down in Catawba County, killing one.

NWS didn’t have a chance to issue a warning because the twister was down and up quicker than radar could detect it.

“With these sorts of tornado events that can spin up rapidly it can be almost impossible to know where they will occur or even whether they will even occur,” Prestley said.

In these cases, Prestley said the best thing forecasters and emergency management officials can do is adequately explain the potential risk of severe storms and give locals as much lead time on a moving storm system as possible.

“Being able to message, ‘Yes, we expect this could happen. If it happens it will be bad, but we don’t know exactly where or if this will happen,’ is an important aspect of weather messaging that is increasingly being emphasized,” he said.

By and large, Prestley said the research shows people do listen to weather warnings and are particularly attuned to the forecast when severe weather moves through.

There are factors outside the public’s control like timing of a storm and the realities of their day-to-day lives, and whether or not a family can afford to evacuate. But Prestley says that’s where emergency planning should come in.

He said a good emergency management plan should take into account who is the most vulnerable, while communicating with them well ahead of a potential storm so they know exactly what to do and where to go.

“You may not have a lot of time so it’s important to have a sort of plan in place before an event occurs,” he said.

Tornado season in the Carolinas typically lasts from March until August, though warmer winters mean there’s been an increase in tornadic activity in cooler months over the past few decades.

Channel 9′s weather app will send you severe warnings for your area even if the power goes out. You can download it at this link.

(WATCH: NWS: ‘High-end’ EF-1 tornado with 110 mph winds hit Catawba County, killing 1)

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.