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When Uncertainty is Certain: A Nuanced Trust between Emergency Managers and Forecast Information in the Southeastern United States

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  • 1 School of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
  • | 2 Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
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Abstract

Weather forecasting is not an exact science, and, in regions near the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, the vastly different types of topography and frequency of rapidly forming storms can result in high uncertainty in severe weather forecasts. NOAA created its VORTEX-Southeast (SE) research program to tackle these unique challenges and integrate them with social science research to increase the survivability of southeastern U.S. weather. As part of VORTEX-SE, this study focused on the severe weather preparation and decision-making of emergency management and, in particular, how uncertainty in severe weather forecasts impacted the relationship between emergency managers (EMs) and weather providers. We conducted in-depth, critical incident background interviews with 35 emergency management personnel across 14 counties. An inductive, data-driven analysis approach revealed several factors contributing to an added layer of practical uncertainty beyond the meteorological forecast uncertainty that impacted and helped to explain the nature of trust in the EM–National Weather Service (NWS) relationship. No- or short-notice events, null events, gaps in information, and differences in perspectives when compared with weather forecasters have led emergency managers to modify their procedures in ways that position them to adapt quickly to unexpected changes in the forecast. The need to do so creates a complex, nuanced trust between these groups. This paper explains how EMs developed a nuanced trust of forecast information, how that trust is a recognition of the inherent uncertainty in severe weather forecasts, and how to strengthen the NWS–EM relationship.

Significance Statement

This paper explores emergency manager (EM) relationships with the National Weather Service in the context of severe and hazardous weather that county EMs in the southeastern United States experienced. The goal was to understand how uncertainty in the forecast affects EM decision-making. We found that EMs actively sought out alternative scenarios to the official forecast and made changes to their baseline severe weather procedures because they had experienced severe weather they were not expecting. The NWS could improve decision support to EMs by providing more-frequent forecast updates and sharing signals by which EMs could anticipate changes to a forecast.

© 2020 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Daphne LaDue, dzaras@ou.edu

Abstract

Weather forecasting is not an exact science, and, in regions near the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, the vastly different types of topography and frequency of rapidly forming storms can result in high uncertainty in severe weather forecasts. NOAA created its VORTEX-Southeast (SE) research program to tackle these unique challenges and integrate them with social science research to increase the survivability of southeastern U.S. weather. As part of VORTEX-SE, this study focused on the severe weather preparation and decision-making of emergency management and, in particular, how uncertainty in severe weather forecasts impacted the relationship between emergency managers (EMs) and weather providers. We conducted in-depth, critical incident background interviews with 35 emergency management personnel across 14 counties. An inductive, data-driven analysis approach revealed several factors contributing to an added layer of practical uncertainty beyond the meteorological forecast uncertainty that impacted and helped to explain the nature of trust in the EM–National Weather Service (NWS) relationship. No- or short-notice events, null events, gaps in information, and differences in perspectives when compared with weather forecasters have led emergency managers to modify their procedures in ways that position them to adapt quickly to unexpected changes in the forecast. The need to do so creates a complex, nuanced trust between these groups. This paper explains how EMs developed a nuanced trust of forecast information, how that trust is a recognition of the inherent uncertainty in severe weather forecasts, and how to strengthen the NWS–EM relationship.

Significance Statement

This paper explores emergency manager (EM) relationships with the National Weather Service in the context of severe and hazardous weather that county EMs in the southeastern United States experienced. The goal was to understand how uncertainty in the forecast affects EM decision-making. We found that EMs actively sought out alternative scenarios to the official forecast and made changes to their baseline severe weather procedures because they had experienced severe weather they were not expecting. The NWS could improve decision support to EMs by providing more-frequent forecast updates and sharing signals by which EMs could anticipate changes to a forecast.

© 2020 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Daphne LaDue, dzaras@ou.edu
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