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Wisconsin Sea Grant and National Weather Service Explore Influence of Severe Weather on the Economically Disadvantaged

Images from New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina are indelible in the nation’s consciousness. The small area was home to some of the city’s more economically disadvantaged people and bore significant losses of life and property.

“The question is, why are the economically disadvantaged more likely to be affected by severe weather? Think about Katrina or other disasters and anecdotally there could be answers but we want to get at the root of that question to ensure that the most effective communication strategies and tools are used to save lives and livelihoods,” said Deidre Peroff, Sea Grant’s social scientist.

She was describing a joint project between Wisconsin Sea Grant and Tim Halbach, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Sullivan, Wisconsin. The pair are exploring how those who are in lower-income brackets get weather forecasts and warnings. “What technology are they using to receive weather information? If they are getting the information, are they using it? Are they more or less likely than others to take action in finding a safe place during high-impact weather events?,” posed Peroff.

When the effort kicked off in 2016, they planned to target urban, rural and elderly populations. They started in Milwaukee, the most populous area of the state. There, Peroff and Halbach explored these questions through interviews with community leaders, such as those involved in churches or social service organizations that meet the needs of the economically underserved groups. They also used face-to-face surveys with participants.

This built trust so Peroff and Halbach could probe such matters as: how does this population receive information about severe weather, do they have an easily accessible “place of safety,” do they respond in different ways depending on the type of weather event, and if they don’t move to safer areas in the face of severe weather what communication efforts could be taken to reduce risk of loss.

“Weather affects everyone, probably more so those who are in difficult situations. We, the National Weather Service, have a lot of ways to communicate to the high-end technical users who have computers, iPads and smart phones in front of them but we don’t spend a lot of time assuring that everyone is getting the information that they need,” Halbach said.

This effort is part of a larger NWS initiative called Weather Ready Nation. The goal is to build resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events. Wisconsin Sea Grant, like many other Sea Grant programs, is a Weather Ready Nation ambassador.

“The National Weather Service has already looked at ways to communicate certain weather conditions, like tornadoes, but this is some of the first work, if not the first, to look at a specific community,” Peroff said.

The pair plans to next move the study to a more rural area of Wisconsin and have applied for a NOAA Collaborative Science Technology and Applied Research grant, which would allow them to accelerate their work.

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