Spring in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and North Texas region means bluebonnets, sunny skies, outdoor festivals and, unfortunately, the potential for severe thunderstorms. Some extreme weather may result in damage and destruction.
Two University of North Texas faculty members in the Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science have studied people's perceptions of, and response to, weather warnings, including tornado warnings and outdoor sirens. They will discuss their findings and give advice for best practices whenever a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service.
Ronald Schumann is an assistant professor in the department. Ronald Timmons, former emergency management coordinator for the city of Plano, has extensive experience in crisis management and response, including response to severe weather. He directs the department's Emergency Operations Center Laboratory. Schumann may be reached at 940-565-2996 and Ronald.Schumann@unt.edu. Timmons may be reached at 940-565-2213 and Ronald.Timmons@unt.edu.
Schumann notes that as part of Tornado Alley, the North Texas region has a disaster subculture — a set of beliefs about a hazard that occurs frequently, with its own vocabulary — for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
"There are myths as well as patterns of behavior. I've heard people say 'Tornadoes never hit us; we're in a suburban area closer to the city,'" Schumann says.
Other misconceptions, he says, include the belief that tornadoes never occur in the middle of the night, which was disproven with the March 29 storms in Lewisville, Rockwall, Keller and Watauga. And while the majority of severe weather that produces tornadoes happens March through June — considered by many as "tornado season" —, extreme weather conditions can happen all year in Texas, as proven on Dec. 26, 2015, when a deadly tornado hit parts of Garland and Rowlett.
Timmons points to a "risk perception blind spot in public nature" that may include "warning fatigue" and result in North Texas residents not heeding severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings — much like residents living near the Gulf Coast who don't evacuate during hurricanes and may even have "hurricane parties" to ride out a storm.
"There’s usually a huge build up by meteorologists to a day when there is expected to be a big weather event and storm watches issued, because it can be predicted days in advance," Timmons says. "There’s also a voice in your head thinking that nothing will happen because usually nothing does."
And although people receive information not only via television and radio weather broadcasts, but also through social media and cellphone apps, misconceptions remain. Timmons and Schumann agree that many people confuse watches with warnings and still insist on driving during severe thunderstorms. For that reason, the National Weather Service is studying how to simplify its notification process, Schumann says.
The professors give these best practices for responding to potential severe weather:
●When severe thunderstorm or tornado watches are issued, "anticipate the need to modify routine, and have a way to receive any specific warnings, such as a weather radio or cellphone alert," Timmons says. Also, "think about where you may be and where is the nearest safe place" at work, at home and in any public place, Schumann says.
●If you're driving and hear a warning that a severe storm is heading for your location, "get off the roads and into the lowest level or center of a substantial building until the threat passes," Timmons says. He says that because lightning and flooded roads are "more common killers than tornadoes," take caution even during severe thunderstorm warnings.
Schumann adds that debris from high winds, which often occur without a tornado, and hailstones could injure you.
"Exit your car. Businesses are not going to stop you from coming in if there's severe weather," he says. "Do not park under an overpass, which could pose more of a danger than being in a building."
●If you go to a tornado shelter in your home — whether it's a bathroom, closet or other small area in the center without windows —, wear shoes and take flashlights and cellphones, Schumann says. When a watch is issued, make sure your phone is charged, he adds.