Public Perception and Response Behaviors to Tornadoes

Public perception of climatological tornado risk in Tennessee

Kelsey Ellis, Lisa Reyes Mason, Kelly Gassert, James Elsner, and Tyler Fricker


The southeastern United States experiences some of the greatest tornado fatality rates in the world, with a peak in the western portion of the state of Tennessee. Understanding the physical and social characteristics of the area that may lead to increased fatalities is a critical research need. Residents of 12 Tennessee counties from three regions of the state (N = 1804) were asked questions about their perception of climatological tornado risk in their county. Approximately half of participants underestimated their local tornado risk calculated from 50 years of historical tornado data. The percentage of participants underestimating their climatological risk increased to 81% when using model estimates of tornado frequencies that account for likely missed tornadoes. A mixed effects, ordinal logistic regression model suggested that participants with prior experience with tornadoes are more likely to correctly estimate or overestimate (rather than underestimate) their risk compared to those lacking experience (β = 0.52, p < 0.01). Demographic characteristics did not have a large influence on the accuracy of climatological tornado risk perception. Areas where more tornadoes go unreported may be at a disadvantage for understanding risk because residents’ prior experience is based on limited observations. This work adds to the literature highlighting the importance of personal experiences in determining hazard risk perception and emphasizes the uniqueness of tornadoes, as they may occur in rural areas without knowledge, potentially prohibiting an accumulation of experiences.

Public understanding of local tornado characteristics and perceived protection from land-surface features in Tennessee, USA

Kelsey Ellis, Lisa Reyes Mason, Kelly Gassert


Misunderstandings about the influence of land-surface features on tornado frequency and other tornado-related misconceptions may affect how people prepare for and behave during hazardous weather events. This research uses a phone survey (n = 1804) to assess how participants in three regions of Tennessee perceive their local tornado characteristics (i.e., direction of travel, seasonality, and diurnal timing) and their belief in protection from land-surface features (i.e., hills, water bodies, and buildings). Region of residence influences most beliefs in local tornado characteristics, and demographic characteristics, specifically age and gender, also have some influence. Residents in hilly East Tennessee are more likely to believe they are protected by hills and underestimate the proportion of nocturnal tornadoes, while residents in West Tennessee are more likely to believe they are protected by water bodies, perhaps because of proximity to the Mississippi River. Outside of the typical severe-weather season, participants were uncertain of when tornadoes were likely to occur; specifically, they did not recognize their local wintertime tornado activity. Because public perceptions are related to local features, local organizations and personnel, for example National Weather Service offices and broadcast meteorologists, may be most helpful in dispelling these misconceptions.

Tornado warnings at night: Who gets the message?

Lisa Reyes Mason, Kelsey Ellis, Betsy Winchester, Susan Schexnayder


Nocturnal tornadoes are a public health threat, over twice as likely to have fatalities as tornadoes during the day. While tornado warning receipt is an important factor in models of individual behavioral response, receipt of warnings at night has not been studied in the literature to date. This study uses survey data from a random sample of Tennessee residents (N = 1804) who were randomly assigned to day or night versions of a near-identical survey instrument. Bivariate and logistic regression analyses compare chance of warning receipt, warning sources, and predictors of warning receipt for day versus night scenarios of a tornadic event. Over 80% of participants asked about a daytime tornado said there was a high/very high chance of receiving the warning, compared to fewer than 50% of participants asked about a nighttime event. Whereas demographic and cognitive factors helped predict tornado warning receipt during the day, cognitive and geographic factors were salient for the night. Perceived county risk and prior experience with a tornado were positively associated with chance of nighttime receipt, while belief that luck is an important factor in surviving a tornado and living in east (compared to west) Tennessee were negatively associated. Future research should consider partnering with the National Weather Service, emergency managers, and local media to increase the likelihood that people will receive tornado warnings at night and to better understand the role that cognitive factors and particular beliefs play in individual efforts to ensure that warnings are received.

Examining patterns of intended response to tornado warnings among residents of the Southern U.S. through a latent class analysis approach

Jayme Walters, Lisa Reyes Mason, Kelsey Ellis


In the past five years, the southern region of the United States has had a large number of fatal tornadoes. Previous research indicates that residents of this area may not be taking appropriate shelter. The present study uses a random sample of Tennessee residents (N = 1126) and the latent class analysis (LCA) technique to explore discrete types of responders according to their pattern of intended behaviors when presented with a tornado warning scenario in the daytime or nighttime. LCA revealed three distinct groups in the day subsample – Tech Users, Typical Actors, and Passive Reactors – and three in the night subsample – Tech Users, Typical Actors, and Non-Reactors. Being a Tech User or Typical Actor was positively associated with intending to seek safe shelter, although being a Passive Reactor or Non-Reactor was not. Further, Tech Users/Typical Actors were seeking and obtaining more warning information from other sources compared to Passive Reactors/Non-Reactors. While few demographic variables were associated with class assignment, bivariate and multivariate analyses illustrated that cognitive factors, such as previous experience with tornadoes and perceived accuracy of warnings, are significantly associated with class membership when controlling for non-cognitive factors. The distinctions made within and between the subsamples can support the National Weather Service’s efforts to better target the public with future messages about tornado safety as well as guide researchers on future studies.

Staying safe in a tornado: A qualitative inquiry into public knowledge, access, and response to tornado warnings

Jayme Walters, Lisa Reyes Mason, Kelsey Ellis, Betsy Winchester


Tornadoes in the southeastern United States continue to cause substantial injury, death, and destruction. The present study seeks to 1) understand inadequate warning access, less understanding, and/or less likelihood of responding to tornado warnings; 2) examine public attitudes about NWS communications; and 3) explore the perceptions of NWS personnel regarding public response to tornado warnings, factors that might influence response, and how their perceptions impact their communication. Participants include a purposive sample of NWS forecasters in Tennessee (n = 11) and residents (n = 45) who were identified as having low access to, low knowledge of, or an unsafe response to tornado warnings in a previous study. A qualitative approach with semistructured interviews was used. Findings indicated that most participants had at least one warning source. Barriers to warning access included electricity outages, rurality, lack of storm radio, heavy sleeping, and hearing impairments. Most participants had knowledge of NWS guidelines for safe shelter seeking but still engaged in behaviors considered unsafe. Proximity, personal experience, and influence of family and friends emerged as influencers of response to warnings. NWS personnel perceived that proximity played a significant role in shelter-seeking behavior as well as the need for confirmation. Poor access to safe shelter arose as a major concern for NWS personnel, specifically mobile home residents. Messaging and specificity in warnings to evoke safe shelter-seeking behavior surfaced as critical issues for NWS personnel. Implications for education and policy changes to enhance public safety and improve public health are noted.

Cry wolf effect? Evaluating the impact of false alarms on public responses to tornado alerts in the southeastern United States

JunkKyu Lim, Brooke Fischer Liu, Michael Egnoto


On average, 75% of tornado warnings in the United States are false alarms. Although forecasters have been concerned that false alarms may generate a complacent public, only a few research studies have examined how the public responds to tornado false alarms. Through four surveys (N = 4162), this study examines how residents in the southeastern United States understand, process, and respond to tornado false alarms. The study then compares social science research findings on perceptions of false alarms to actual county false alarm ratios and the number of tornado warnings issued by counties. Contrary to prior research, findings indicate that concerns about false alarm ratios generating a complacent public may be overblown. Results show that southeastern U.S. residents estimate tornado warnings to be more accurate than they are. Participants’ perceived false alarm ratios are not correlated with actual county false alarm ratios. Counterintuitively, the higher individuals perceive false alarm ratios and tornado alert accuracy to be, the more likely they are to take protective behavior such as sheltering in place in response to tornado warnings. Actual country false alarm ratios and the number of tornado warnings issued did not predict taking protective action.

How mobile home residents understand and respond to tornado warnings

Brooke Fischer Liu, Michael Egnoto, JunkKyu Lim


Mobile home residents experience higher fatality rates from tornadoes than “fixed home” residents. Yet, research on how mobile home residents understand and respond to tornado warnings is lacking. Such research can help meteorologists and their partners better communicate tornado risk. We conducted four surveys with residents of the southeastern United States. This region has the highest concentration of tornado fatalities and killer tornadoes, in part because of the high density of mobile homes. Findings reveal that today’s tornado warning system inadequately prepares mobile home residents to respond safely to tornadoes. The study offers recommendations for how to improve tornado communication for mobile and fixed home residents.