Researchers studying impacts of severe weather threats on community assets, including critical infrastructure

*Authored by Researchers Jooho Kim, Patrick Campbell, and Communications Specialist Emily Jeffries. For more information on this project, or to collaborate with the researchers involved, please email nssl.outreach@noaa.gov*

Severe weather hazards such as hail, high wind speeds, and tornadoes, can impact essential community infrastructure. Researchers are studying the impacts of severe weather threats on a range of community assets, including critical infrastructures like hospitals, fire stations, and schools, to improve the resiliency of communities.

Researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies at the University of Oklahoma, in collaboration with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, say these studies could support National Weather Service forecasters, emergency managers, and the public by providing advance notice of the physical risks from severe weather threats.

Researchers recognized a need to effectively help communities predict damage to buildings and other physical impacts of severe weather threats. Prediction of such damage could improve communities’ abilities to manage their preparedness, response, and recovery phases for emergency or disaster management.

Outcomes of this research study may also enhance existing operation systems by providing real-time damage estimates for critical infrastructure and building properties.

The Tools and Results

For an effective community risk assessment from severe weather threats, two components are crucial —  accurate weather information and a geodatabase of community assets. This research utilized experimental Probabilistic Hazard Information (PHI) as a weather information source.

A graphic of the research framework.
Research framework (Graphic provided)

In recent years, a prototype software system that allows forecasters to generate PHI was developed under the Forecasting A Continuum of Environmental Threats (FACETs) program at NSSL and CIMMS.

PHI for severe weather threats can be represented by continuously updating probabilistic hazard grids, which map the likelihood of an hazard occurring. PHI can be tailored and adapted to meet a variety of needs to effectively predict and communicate the risk of hazardous weather to forecasters, emergency agencies, and communities.

A graphic of Probabilistic Hazard Information (PHI) showing the forecasted risk of a tornado hazard.
Probabilistic Hazard Information (PHI) showing the forecasted risk of a tornado hazard. (Graphic provided)

In order to leverage PHI in the assessment of community risk, researchers recognized a need to develop a geodatabase — a database designed to store and query geographic information —  for community assets. This information includes multiple building types, like residential, commercial, and industrial, and critical infrastructure.

A graphic of machine-learning geodatabase creation.
Machine-learning based geodatabase creation using multiple geodata, like building footprint, and city zoning. (Graphic provided)

Using the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale), researchers are testing the possibility of estimating the Degree of Damage (DoD) to individual buildings. The EF-Scale is the same standard used by the National Weather Service to rate tornado damage.

Degree of Damage on multiple types of buildings (commercial, industrial and residential) in the Oklahoma City area during a simulated severe weather event. The graphic portrays a system test using a hypothetical, simulated event to demonstrate the results from the proposed model. (Graphic Provided)

Researchers can successfully compute DoD given that a Damage Indicator (DI) and wind speed range are provided for buildings. Currently, the EF-Scale has 28 DIs corresponding to a wide range of building types, such as one- or two-family residences, manufactured homes, and apartments. 

While building footprint data, building location, area, perimeter, and sometimes height is often provided by state and city offices, it can take tremendous time to manually categorize millions of different buildings into the 28 types of DI.

A graphic of DI types and areas.
Potential Degree of Damage (DoD) estimates for individual buildings that could be derived from PHI data and building information in geodatabase.(Graphic provided)

In order to identify DI types for large areas, researchers are using multiple cutting-edge machine-learning algorithms, making use of building footprint, city zoning ordinance data, images, and other publicly available data. As a geodatabase of DI information is built, researchers will be able to combine it with PHI data to produce detailed estimates of expected building damage and the likelihood of their occurrence.

Degree of Damage on fire stations in the Oklahoma City area during a simulated severe weather event. Also shown are the probability of DoD. (Graphic Provided)

Potential Impact

If advance warning of damage to structures could be fully developed and incorporated into NWS operations, researchers expect it could become a valuable part of the comprehensive severe weather hazard information that is envisioned by the FACETs program.

Emergency managers could use information about at-risk community assets, including critical infrastructure, to maximize their mitigation and response efforts, and television broadcasters could use estimated damage information to focus their message. This enhanced hazard information can be used by the general public to make better decisions to protect themselves when under threat from severe weather.

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The Emotional Toll of Tornadoes

Kim Klockow-McClain stands at memorial crosses
Kim Klockow-McClain stands at the memorial for tornado victims in Lee County, Alabama.

Researcher Kim Klockow-McClain absorbs the sights and sounds around her at Providence Baptist Church in Lee County, Alabama — almost one month since tornadoes devastated the community.

Klockow-McClain wants to tell people’s stories. They guide her effort to create a more complete picture of storms — not just how they happen meteorologically, but the impression they leave on people’s lives.

As a societal impacts researcher at the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, her work supports NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory to improve the tools used by NOAA National Weather Service forecasters.

She wants to learn how emergency management agencies, broadcast meteorologists and NWS forecasters work together in an attempt to impact the public, how they operate individually and how current practices ultimately affect severe weather safety messages the public receives.

“It will kind of be the end of the story for this tornado path that I’ve been following through Alabama and into Georgia.”

So on a dewy Tuesday morning, Klockow-McClain stands among 23 white crosses on the church’s south lawn. The crosses are a symbol of remembrance — of each person who died on March 3 after tornadoes tore through the area. The memorial is disheveled from a storm the night before but some items placed at the base of each cross remain — including a jar of peanut butter.

“You can just imagine it was their loved one coming up to their memorial saying, ‘I know you would want your peanut butter,’” she said, tears forming in her eyes.

She takes a moment, lightly hugs the manilla folders filled with her surveys and questions, wipes her eyes and walks toward the church.

A visceral need

mobile radar in field
VORTEX-SE is an effort to understand how environmental factors characteristic of the southeastern U.S. affect the formation, intensity, structure, and path of tornadoes in this region.

Klockow-McClain has a visceral need to visualize things. She says as a geographer she has to see things — maps, pathways, connections. Making those connections helps her build a map.

She visited the memorial first to build that piece of her research map and connections.

“I’m trying to understand the setting, the people and the place — who they are, who they were — the people who are gone,” Klockow-McClain said. “I couldn’t come here and not see the memorial. Ultimately, this is about the families who were left behind and the people who died.”

Her research is part of the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast, or VORTEX-SE, funded by NOAA.

VORTEX-SE is an effort to understand how environmental factors characteristic of the southeastern U.S. affect the formation, intensity, structure, and path of tornadoes in this region. The experiment will also determine the best methods for communicating the forecast uncertainty related to these events to the public, and evaluate public response.

For three days Klockow-McClain traveled the path of the March 3 tornado through Alabama and Georgia, meeting with those involved in alerting the public and locals who were personally impacted.

“It will kind of be the end of the story for this tornado path that I’ve been following through Alabama and into Georgia,” Klockow-McClain said.

Kim Klockow-McClain in emergency management office
“We as researchers can release the best severe weather technologies for our partners, but if people… can’t use them and don’t want them for reasons we don’t understand — that helps no one.”

Her research is focused on how messages coming from an Integrated Warning Team — emergency managers, broadcasters and forecasters — serve those living in manufactured and mobile homes, or whether further collective activities may need to be undertaken.

“When talking to all of the vested parties — emergency management agencies, broadcast meteorologists, forecasters and the public — you see places of great opportunity,” Klockow-McClain said. “We as researchers can release the best severe weather technologies for our partners, but if people don’t use, can’t use them and don’t want them for reasons we don’t understand — that helps no one.”

Bringing purpose

Klockow-McClain’s public response survey work first began in 2011 in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, about two hours from Providence Baptist Church.

Eight years later she revisited where her career began. As she navigates the curves of a rural road, she recounts one of the first times she interviewed someone who had witnessed a deadly storm. The person realized a tornado was near because they felt and heard debris falling on them while they were working on their vehicle.

Klockow-McClain spoke to that individual for nearly an hour in 2011. Now, sitting in the driver’s side of an SUV and staring at that person’s former home, she retells their story.

This person was one of 70 Klockow-McClain interviewed in less than one week. They heard meteorologists talk about an elevated weather risk on that day but didn’t think too much about it. That was until while working on their vehicle outside they described house insulation falling from the sky. Klcokow-McClain said the person ran inside their house, grabbed their significant other and animal and shoved them all in the bathtub. That move saved their lives. Describing the hours to come — losing neighbors, seeing houses gone around them — Klockow-McClain said she will never forget her hour-long conversation with that individual.

“I’m just creating a space for them to talk. I recognize that offers value to people. I use a method that involves care as a core principle. I feel like I’m doing something that matters.”

Inside Providence Baptist Church, Klockow-McClain is in a similar situation. She sits with an interviewee as they recount graphic details, highlighting every megapixel of that photographic day in March. All of the stories she’s heard don’t impact her personally. Klockow-McClain doesn’t let them. Instead, those stories bring her purpose.

“In the role as interviewer, you’re equal parts researcher and counselor. I’m just creating a space for them to talk,” Klockow-McClain said. “I recognize that offers value to people. I use a method that involves care as a core principle. I feel like I’m doing something that matters.”

She specifically chose to visit Alabama and Georgia nearly one month after the event because the crisis stage was ending and people were slowly attempting to recover a sense of normalcy.

Helping people feel heard

Klockow-McClain understands her research with devastating tornadoes can be emotionally taxing, but she never views it that way.

“I’m grateful I get to tell these stories,” she said. “As a meteorologist, you see these things happen and it can feel terrible to feel like you can’t do anything. So for me, to be able to sit there and feel like I’m helping them by helping them feel heard and their story matters by being a part of a bigger picture — that is helpful to me.”

Kim Klockow-McClain interviewing woman
“Research isn’t just about going out and collecting observations of… atmospheric factors. It’s about relating to people deeply enough that you really and truly can understand the context of what they’re telling you.”

She lets the person being interviewed steer the interview, no matter how graphic the story. Klockow-McClain said she wants to start in their shoes as people share what is most important to them. She listens to them verbalize the items that come to their minds as they help her understand their frame of mind and perspective.

“Research isn’t just about going out and collecting observations of wind, precipitation and atmospheric factors,” she said. “It’s about relating to people deeply enough that you really and truly can understand the context of what they’re telling you and fill this role of having some sympathy that’s meaningful to them for what they’ve experienced because they’ve gone through something very difficult. To come in and just dispassionately have a checklist or survey wouldn’t feel right to me.”

Generating a diagnosis

Klockow-McClain spent several hours speaking with volunteers at the church before following their suggestions to see the tornado damage in person.

She drove for less than 15 minutes before she saw signs of the damage and suddenly she was in the thick of it. Power lines were still down in areas. Piles of debris sat by the road as crews worked to clear side roads. Those living nearby watched for looters, which was a consistent issue after the storms.

Klockow-McClain hopes her research will lead to a better understanding of the needs of specific communities in the southeast to reduce tornado deaths in that area of the United States. Her research is aimed at generating a diagnosis that could ultimately lead to an effective treatment. A part of that is telling people’s stories.end mark

Kim Klockow-McClain in car viewing tornado damage

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NOAA researcher studies how communicating tornado information impacts lives

When a tornado threatens a community, NOAA National Weather Service forecasters issue a tornado warning. Local emergency management agencies sound emergency tornado sirens or send out phone alerts. Broadcast meteorologists tell everyone to take shelter. But how does all of this help the public and how does the public respond?

Kim Klockow-McClain encounters  damage in the area of Alabama that experienced deadly tornadoes in early March. She recently visited 10 public safety officials and communicators who were affected by the March tornado in Alabama and Georgia. Her three-day trip is part of her research through the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast, or VORTEX-SE.
Kim Klockow-McClain encounters damage in the area of Alabama that experienced deadly tornadoes in early March. She recently visited 10 public safety officials and communicators who were affected by the March tornado in Alabama and Georgia. Her three-day trip is part of her research through the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast, or VORTEX-SE.

This scenario played out in southeast Alabama about a month ago, when a devastating tornado killed 23 people and injured numerous others, before ending its path in Georgia. The storm system was well forecast — as NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center predicted an elevated risk of severe storms days in advance and local NWS forecasters provided timely warnings.

Kim Klockow-McClain wants to know why that storm system — which included winds that reached 170 mph and rated 4, with 5 being the worst, on the Enhanced Fujita tornado-rating scale— was so deadly. She is a societal impacts researcher at the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. Her work supports NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory to improve tools used by NOAA National Weather Service forecasters.

For the full story, visit NOAA Research’s website.

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