Why don't we pay attention to tornado warnings?

Joplin tornado damage
Josh Ramsey looks through the rubble of what is left of his mother-in-law's home following a tornado Monday, May 23, 2011, in Joplin , Mo. A massive tornado that tore a six-mile path across southwestern Missouri killed at least 89 people as it smashed the city of Joplin, ripping into a hospital, crushing cars like soda cans and leaving behind only splintered tree trunks where entire neighborhoods once stood.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

National Weather Service experts use cutting-edge technology to detect tornadoes quickly and keep you safe. But they can't get in your head -- and that's the problem.

The basic tornado danger system -- warnings are broadcast, sirens sound and people take shelter -- stumbles over some frustrating psychology: Most people don't run for shelter at the first sign of danger but search, instead, for information to confirm it.

Experts say the weather service has often ignored behavioral research on delivering a "take cover" message that sinks in quickly. Officials say they're working to make warnings more timely and effective. Human nature, though, is hard to change.

Dozens of studies over decades show people spend precious time looking for more information if warnings are confusing or short on detail.

"That's how human beings are wired. Nothing is going to change that," said Dennis Mileti, a sociologist and retired director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a national clearinghouse for disaster research.

"People turn into information vampires when they hear their town and village might be struck by a violent tornado," said Mileti. "And if you don't provide them with the information they need, what you're actually doing is guaranteeing the time people spend searching is longer rather than shorter."

The average advance warning of a tornado in the United States is about 13 minutes, according to National Weather Service data. But even with advance warning, people often don't seek shelter until they feel the danger is personal.

Sometimes, that's too late.

On May 22, 2011, 158 people died when a large, violent tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

Tornado warnings had been issued, and sirens sounded. But most residents did not immediately take shelter, a government inquiry found.

That's a fairly common response.


"You just get into a mindset of it's just another warning," said Monty Johnson, a resident of Wadena who learned that lesson on June 17, 2010, when a powerful tornado hit his central Minnesota town.

Monty Johnson
Wadena resident Monty Johnson sits in the backyard of his family's former home on May 3, 2012. The house was destroyed by an EF4 tornado on June 17, 2010. Johnson and his family decided to purchase another home in the community instead of rebuilding. The family still owns the lot and would sell it for $7,000. It's one of several still-vacant lots in the part of the city that was hardest hit by the tornado.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Johnson, an administrator at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College campus in Wadena, was home that hot, muggy afternoon because the threatening weather had closed the campus early.

Sirens sounded in late afternoon as strong winds blew through his neighborhood. But he was casual about the threat, keeping an eye on the weather radar, but not going to the basement.

"We had done some landscaping earlier, so I went outside and was kind of looking around to see if there was any damage from the first pass that went through," Johnson recalled.

"Came back in and we were watching the radar again and it was getting kind of weird outside. And I get a phone call from a colleague who had just left the campus earlier. He said, 'You need to get in the basement. I can see a tornado coming your way.'

"We got to the bottom of the stairs, myself, my wife and my daughter, at the time it hit the house."

Johnson believes that phone call almost certainly saved his life.

New storm shelter under construction
Bruce Kriens of Bruce's Contracting of Backus walks through the construction site of a storm shelter/safe room gymnasium in Wadena on Thursday, May 3, 2012. Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools received $950,000 in FEMA funding to build the shelter, which will be 6,500 square feet and able to withstand winds up to 275 mph. The shelter is located on the north side of the combination middle/high school, which is also under construction.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Shards of glass peppered the walls of the room where he was watching the weather radar. A plank from bleachers in a nearby park was driven through the refrigerator.

That narrow escape changed his response to weather warnings.

"We paid attention to sirens before, don't get me wrong. That was to go outside and look, of course. But yeah, we have a new appreciation for sirens now, that's for sure," said Johnson.

Tornado survivors nearly always respond much quicker to severe weather warnings. But the rest of us don't learn from their experience, said Laura Myers, a Mississippi State University sociologist who's interviewed hundreds of people about how they understand and respond to tornado warnings.

Myers found that about 10 percent of the population are anxious about bad weather and take shelter at the first sign of danger. But, most respond to dangerous situations like a tornado warning with what she calls denial.

"They're sitting there saying, 'OK, I don't want to deal with it. I don't want to have to worry about it. I want to assume everything is going to be OK.' That's why the person will wait for that secondary confirmation. They'll say, 'I've really gotta know it's going to hit me.'"

So the quicker people get that secondary confirmation, the faster they will take shelter.

New school in Wadena
Construction continues on a new middle/high school for Wadena-Deer Creek Public School students. The former high school was destroyed by an EF4 tornado on June 17, 2010. The district plans to hold a grand opening of the new school and attached storm shelter/safe room gymnasium on Aug. 29.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

It's easy, though, for communication to get garbled in an emergency. That was one of the lessons from Joplin, which had also surfaced in Wadena, where communications broke down when a 911 dispatcher momentarily misunderstood a caller.

The caller was a Discovery Channel storm chaser who'd spotted "a large stovepipe tornado southeast of town ... the sirens are not blowing and it's a violent tornado right now."

The dispatcher activated the siren for the town of Verndale, which is about six miles southeast of Wadena. But the tornado was heading for Wadena.

Less than a minute later, the sheriff corrected the dispatcher, who then activated the correct sirens.

No one died in Wadena. People had plenty of warning and most heard the sirens before the tornado struck. But some still delayed taking shelter until they saw or heard the tornado.

National Weather Service Director John Hayes says after 158 people died in the Joplin tornado last year, the weather service started to question why people don't heed warnings.

"People had become sort of complacent. When you live in an area where there are a lot of tornadoes in your area, a tornado is a very localized phenomenon and if you live in a large county and you don't see the tornado, you think, 'Well, I hear yet another warning.'"


One reason people ignore warnings might be because they are often false alarms.

The weather service says three out of four tornado warnings are false alarms -- where a warning is issued, but no tornado is observed.

Social scientists say just explaining false alarms -- telling the public that a tornado formed but didn't touch down on the ground -- would help. Otherwise people think the warning was simply a mistake.

In Kansas and Missouri, the weather service is experimenting with harder-edged language, called impact warnings, for the most dangerous tornadoes.

In mid-April, as a large tornado moved into southeast Wichita, Kan., officials warned the public, "You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter," said Mike Hudson, chief operating officer for the weather service regional headquarters in Kansas City.

It was the first time the weather service used that stronger language. "Those types of phrases really help paint the picture to somebody that this is the real deal," Hudson said.

Some still aren't persuaded.

In that situation, fear doesn't sell, and "if you appeal to fear, you actually turn people off," said communication expert Dennis Mileti.

Mileti said warnings must avoid creating fear or confusion, and tell people clearly what to do and when to do it, as well as the possible consequences of not taking action.


Despite the turbulence, the gap between the meteorologists and the behaviorists is narrowing.

The weather service is making a greater effort than ever to integrate the science of weather and human behavior, said Hudson. Social scientists are evaluating how the new impact warning messages work, and will advise the weather service on the most effective language.

"It's a really big change, in fact it's just phenomenal," Myers, the sociologist, said of the improving relationship with forecasters.

"We've been going along behind them and gathering the data and doing the stuff on our own, and they weren't even aware it existed. Once they were aware our research existed then they were like, 'OK, why don't we do it together?'"

That blending of physical and social science, combined with new technology and social media, will significantly change how people get tornado warnings and information.

Improved radar will soon help forecasters identify developing tornadoes even more quickly. Federal officials are rolling out a national alert system to let the weather service send tornado warnings directly to the cell phones of anyone in the warned area at the same time the warning goes over weather radio, said assistant FEMA administrator Damon Penn.

Penn expects all major metropolitan areas of the U.S. to have the system in place by the end of the year.

County emergency managers will also be able to use the text warnings for incidents like chemical spills. The system will let officials draw a circle on a map and send a message to every cell phone in that area.

But will finely crafted messages and instant communication overcome that human tendency to delay going to shelter?

Mileti, the expert on human behavior and warnings, said he's done the wrong thing, too.

When a tornado siren sounded near his Colorado home, he recalled stepping into the back yard to look at the churning twisting black cloud overhead.

"And guess what I did? I started talking with the people I was with. 'You think that's the tornado? What do you think we should do?'

"And so I'm as much a victim of my humanity as everyone else on the planet. I became evidence for my own case study."