Abstract

Reducing fatalities from tornadoes in the southeastern United States requires considering multiple societal factors, including the risk perceptions that influence how people interpret tornado forecasts and warnings and make protective decisions. This study investigates perceptions of tornado risk in the southeastern United States, operationalized as judgments of tornado likelihood. While it is possible that residents of the Southeast could learn about tornado likelihood in their region from observing the local environment, cognitive-ecological theory from psychology suggests that such judgments of likelihood can be inaccurate, even if other aspects of local knowledge are accurate. This study analyzes data from a survey that elicited different groups’ judgments of tornado likelihood associated with different seasons, times of day, and storm system types. Results are presented from a representative sample of Southeastern residents and are compared with a sample of tornado experts (who have extensive knowledge about the likelihood of Southeastern tornadoes) and a representative sample of Great Plains residents. Overall, the analysis finds that many members of the Southeastern public deviate from the expert sample on tornado likelihood, especially for winter and overnight tornadoes. These deviations from expert opinion mimic the judgments of the Great Plains public. This study demonstrates how psychological theory and a decision science approach can be used to identify potential gaps in public knowledge about hazardous weather risks, and it reveals several such potential gaps. Further research is needed to understand the reasons for deviations between public and expert judgments, evaluate their effects on protective decision-making, and develop strategies to address them.

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