VORTEX-SE Community Outreach Begins

Hello out there! My name is Tracie Sempier and I am new to the VORTEX-SE Community Forum, but I am not new to the impact of tornados. In fact, I can remember in 2000 when the F4 tornado hit my hometown of Tuscaloosa and left many homes damaged and 11 people dead. Since then, I have moved to coastal Mississippi where the majority of my work has focused on coastal storms. Then again in 2011, I can remember driving up to Tuscaloosa to help pass out supplies in the parking lot of my childhood church that was mostly destroyed. We had a community Thanksgiving meal out in the parking lot under a large tent since the building could not be occupied. Fast forward to 2020 where I now have the opportunity to take what I have learned about communicating risk and apply it to coordinating a new outreach program. The VORTEX-SE Community Outreach Program will help vulnerable communities in the Southeast prepare for, respond to, and recover from the impacts of tornados. As part of this effort, we will be creating a model for a regional extension program that will synthesize findings from VORTEX-SE researchers and develop ways to inform application of the research at the local level.

If you are reading this blog post, I am sure you are aware of the amazing work being conducted by the VORTEX-SE team of researchers (physical and social scientists as well as broadcast meteorologists). In my new role, I will be looking for practical ways a community can increase their resilience to severe weather that is based on sound science and can be implemented at the local level. I have many years of experience as an extension specialist, trying to assess the needs of those I serve, which will come in handy as I embark on this new assignment. The goal of this outreach program will be to better understand the vulnerabilities of those living in tornado prone areas, use this information to inform VORTEX priorities and research questions, and work together to co-produce solutions to keep people safe. Connecting people in their neighborhoods to resources, providing trainings on tornado safety, and partnering with organizations that already have a strong presence in the community are a few of the ways we hope to build capacity for communities to respond. 

As you can imagine, communicating risk involves a great deal of trust and credibility between our team and those we serve. We want to involve members of the public who may have never been involved before, but who can be key drivers of change in their neighborhoods and help build social networks that will last long after any formal program ends. Therefore, we will also focus on informal networks and recruit thought leaders within communities that can help us understand the gaps that exist, but also share their local knowledge about how to reach vulnerable populations in their area. The goal is to increase tornado and severe weather knowledge but also help residents develop and practice skills that can be used in the event of an inclement weather event. 

I am excited about the start of this program and what it will mean for the health and safety of all those living in the Southeast and how they approach preparedness in the future. Well-equipped and knowledgeable community members are the best resource a neighborhood can hope for when severe weather hits. Fostering a sense of purpose and ability to take action is a key component of increasing community resilience. Let’s get started! If you or your organization is interested in learning more or would like to be part of this grassroots effort, please contact me at tracie.sempier@usm.edu

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