“Sleep with your phone on!”: Messaging for Nighttime Tornadoes

October 9, 2020 · 0 comments

With Hurricane Delta poised to strike Louisiana today, the risk of embedded tornadoes will increase as rainbands spiral ashore, along with the primary threats of storm surge and damaging winds. Delta is forecast to plow well inland Friday night into the weekend, continuing a low risk for tornadoes, some of which could occur at night in Alabama, Mississippi and into southern Tennessee. The threat is more than a bit worrisome as new research in BAMS finds through phone surveys and followup interviews in Tennessee that people are woefully unprepared for nocturnal tornadoes.

In their article,” Kelsey Ellis and colleagues found a host of poor practices by residents when it comes to tornadoes at night. The authors recommend forecasters narrow their messaging about nocturnal tornadoes in the Southeast to a single important message to limit confusion.

Almost half of Tennessee’s tornadoes occur at night, as in other Southeast states with large numbers of nocturnal tornadoes, and are two-and-a-half times as deadly as daytime tornadoes. This creates detection, warning, and public response challenges. Yet, respondents in the western part of the state overestimated tornado occurrence at night while those in the east substantially underestimated the number.

Additionally, nearly half of participants in the survey say they rely on sirens to receive tornado warnings. This is despite the fact that sirens are not designed to warn people inside nor be loud enough to wake anyone up. Instead, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) “should be a constant,” the authors say. Also, people mentioned they rely on TV and social media for receiving warnings even though generally neither will wake you up.

The authors felt it was “dangerous” that even the more tech savvy and tornado aware respondents answered they were compelled to look outside for evidence of a tornado—even in the dark. Interviewees explained they were “checking for sounds instead of visual cues.”

NWS forecasters were also surveyed about nocturnal tornadoes. The forecasters mentioned the lack of ground truth and fear for public safety among challenges to the nighttime warning service. They noted few spotter or social media reports inform them if “the storm is actually showing the signs on the grounds that radar is indicating aloft.” Forecasters said they felt “fearful, worried, or nervous for the public during nocturnal tornadoes because fatalities ‘are a given.’”

The survey responses moved Ellis et al. to recommend a single-emphasis message be presented to residents to combat the nighttime tornado problem:

One strategy that may improve public safety during a nocturnal tornado event, and which addresses the forecaster challenge of communication prior to and during an event, is to develop “One Message”—a consistent message that EMs and the media use throughout broadcasts, briefings, and social media. Examples of messages could be: “Nighttime tornadoes expected. Sleep with your phone ON tonight!” or “Tornadoes will form quickly! Make plans now where you will take shelter!” or “If you live in a manufactured home, you may not have much time to seek shelter tonight!” One Message may decrease confusion for receivers, making them more likely to make safe decisions. Messages could similarly be used to dispel misconceptions about local geography in ways relevant to the specific listening area, for example: “You are not protected by nearby hills. Seek shelter immediately!”

With Hurricane Delta’s nighttime tornado threat ramping up, the authors suggest people use multiple ways to receive warnings, keeps phones on and charged, don’t rely on tornado sirens, and if possible relocate ahead of the weather from “particularly vulnerable” situations, such as mobile homes and vehicles.