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Folk science: Local understandings of the tornado hazard in Alabama and Mississippi on April 27, 2011

by Kimberly E. Klockow* and Randy A. Peppler**

Editors note: Author Kim Klockow conducted the interviews (with the help of Sheldon Drobot--see acknowledgment at end of article) and refers to herself as "I" throughout much of the article. Author Randy Peppler worked with Kim to conduct the data analysis and write the article.

"It was everything out of character for everything that I've ever known about tornadoes. In the 57 years I've been on this earth. I never dreamed that that tornado down there would come up here and flatten my house. And I certainly never dreamed that it'd stay on the ground over here."

With his right hand, one of my interviewees-we'll call him Bill-pointed toward the southwest, where a tornado originating outside of Tuscaloosa had carved a path through the pine trees straight toward him on April 27, 2011. He was clearly still astonished that the tornado made it all the way from Tuscaloosa to his suburb outside Birmingham, even though he had correctly identified the southwest as the direction from which tornadic storms typically come. "I think I got lulled into a false sense of security because nothing's ever happened here. Another thing, you don't expect a tornado to stay on the ground that long. Plus you don't know that a tornado can come up the hill along the ground and that tornado did it. They just don't do things like that-or didn't."

Previously in the interview, Bill told me that he'd watched the news footage from Tuscaloosa earlier in the day with his wife, shocked but not alarmed at what was happening. After a few minutes of watching, he went back out to his driveway to work on his motorcycle in preparation for a road trip the next day. This trip and its demands weighed far more heavily on his mind than the tornado occurring over 30 miles away. Disconnected from information, the first indication Bill had that the tornado was arriving (besides the sirens that he discounted "because his county is too large" for a siren to concern him) was the debris that fell around him as he watched in disbelief.

As we continued talking, Bill discussed his previous tornado experience, noting that a tornado had passed 3-4 miles to his north in 1998. Meteorologists know it's a matter of pure chance that Bill was not struck in 1998, and it seems logical that Bill would have counted this as a near miss, an important perceptual shade of gray facing the meteorologist's black-and-white tornado verification system, described by Barnes et al. (2007). Perhaps, also, it would be logical that Bill would conclude that tornadoes could hit him. But that's not what Bill took from the experience. Throughout the interview, what he was attempting to convey was that, to his understanding, tornadoes go "there," not "here," that hills stop tornadoes from pushing forward, that tornadoes over 30 miles away just won't stay on the ground to reach you. And he was still struggling to reconcile the inescapable truth that his understanding about tornadoes had been wrong. His disbelief had left him scrambling for shelter as the forest snapped behind him, and Bill, his wife, and their dog survived in the bath tub. His next-door neighbors were not as fortunate. And it turned out that Bill was lucky he had so little time-if he'd had more, he would have gotten into his earthen cellar that collapsed and was piled over in debris.

I couldn't go anywhere without hearing this type of story. Some beliefs were pervasive among many individuals across the states, and some were strongly attached to place. Almost everyone interviewed in and around the town of Smithville, Miss.-including city officials-believed that the SW-NE-oriented waterway just west of town shielded them from tornadoes. Only after the tornado began to cross the waterway did many citizens personalize the risk-it was at this point that they not only believed the tornado was happening (and most were very well aware of that as the tornado approached) but they internalized that it could happen to them . I heard some variant of the 'hills kill the tornadoes most of the time' story dozens of times, and Bill's view that "tornadoes go 'there,' not 'here'" was extraordinarily pervasive. In the rural town of Cordova, Ala., hit twice on April 27, several separate people reported a belief that a new highway strip called Corridor X was responsible for bringing the tornadoes to them. These beliefs apparently stuck out to the National Weather Service (NWS) Service Assessment (SA) team (NWS 2011), as well. In the SA (section, p. 35), the team labels these beliefs " weather myths," describing them only as " preconceived notions based on local, often erroneous, information regarding weather threats" that resulted in people discounting their storm risk. The team then noted that meteorologists ought to "consider identifying and dispelling local myth."

I admit that I'm not yet exactly sure what an ideal strategy should be for handling the phenomenon of "weather myths," but that is because I do not feel that the phenomenon has been clearly described, categorized, and explained. Until we do that, how can we know what, if anything, could be appropriate "to do" about "it"? Briefly here then, in an attempt to define and explain what these so-called "weather myths" might be, we introduce geographic theories about place and psychological theories regarding risk judgment and perception to Bill's story and a few types of "weather myths", varying by proposed tornado mechanism and/or place. These come from a larger set of 71 in-depth interviews conducted in Alabama and Mississippi following the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak. We will use the term "folk science" instead of "weather myths" as it connotes a more positive description of the place-based and perhaps culturally-situated environmental knowledges that have been acquired and developed by people living in a place over a long period of time. This point of view is critical for framing people not as stupid or misinformed, but as empowered in their relationships to one another and to place.

The literature on place attachment ( summarized recently by Smith and Cartlidge 2011 ) is vast, and can help us to frame the comments of Bill, the residents of Smithville, and others in their local contexts . For example, Relph (1976) described how one of the most basic aspects of human nature is the ability to develop emotional ties to place, with "home" seen as a place of refuge filled with particular life experiences; Tuan (e.g., 1977) famously explored the emotional bonds people make with places. This notion should be extraordinarily important for framing how people relate hazards to place (or fail to do so), a point we will revisit below when connecting the comments heard to risk theory. Low and Altman (1992) went further, describing how place attachment involves a complex interplay between emotions, beliefs, and actions centered on a place. Living in a place, therefore, is not simply a matter of surviving in it; additionally place becomes embedded in everything we do and is the foundation upon which we base our life's activity. The relationship we have with place surpasses the functional to encompass affective dimensions of the lived experience.

Similarly, place-based knowledge, including about the environment, is inherently "local", and the property of "localness" and the long-term, situated practices that generate "localness" (e.g., Steward 1955; Turnbull 1993; Huber and Petersen 1997; Nazarea 1999; Ingold and Kurttila 2000) provide a way of drawing distinctions between the insights emanating from different knowledge production systems (such as weather insights gleaned from living in a place and those produced by scientific research). In other words, putting yourself in the shoes of others-considering particularly where those shoes have been-greatly enhances your understanding of the notions people come up with to understand their world. While the study of place-based environmental knowledge, its local relevance, and the resulting intuition and meaning it produces often has been conducted in the context of Indigenous peoples (e.g., Basso 1996; Antweiler 1998; Berkes 1999; Menzies and Butler 2006), it also has been documented and studied within modernist settings (e.g., Danielson 1990; Strauss and Orlove, eds. 2003), and therefore it is instructive to study within our context in order to understand the local behavior that may result from it. Attachments to place, relationships in place, and knowledge generated in place undoubtedly played some role in how the people we talked to framed the tornado hazard as the storm moved into the environment near them. Through storm interactions with that local environment, people seemed to feel that the threat from the storm hazard would be lessened. If you come to see home as a place of refuge and stability, at least in a general sense, then seeing it as vulnerable could be antithetical and confusing.

The folk science documented in Alabama and Mississippi often took the form of socially negotiated knowledge, a hallmark of 'sense of place' formation-for example, the entire corridor of Amory–Smithville reporting a belief in the protective properties of the waterway, and reporting also that such knowledge was commonly accepted. Weather characterizes place, and lived experience in place, as much as surface characteristics; people live where the air and soil meet, thus, it is natural that weather (and interpreting it) should become a common focus for conversation (e.g., Danielson 1990). While these ideas explain some of the story, there are other elements of the quotes that might be better explained by looking to ideas from other traditions, such as risk psychology.

One of the biggest struggles for Bill, and a majority of the interviewees, was internalizing the possibility that a tornado could hit him directly. Believing there was a tornado was nothing compared to personalizing this risk to themselves. From outside the situation, this behavior could simply be labeled "denial," but the behavior actually falls into a broader class of heuristics people use to selectively filter, or attend to, information they receive (Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier 2011). People commonly color information coming in with their own brand of rosy glasses, attenuating certain risks and amplifying others with lenses such as risk characteristics (Slovic 1987), framing of the implications of the risk on lifestyle choices and social structure (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982), and projecting future states given selective and state-dependent information retrieval (Gilbert 2007, among numerous other perceptual lenses.

At first glance, Bill and others seem to rely heavily on normalcy bias, or the discounting of one's potential to experience catastrophic events-even in warnings (Donner, Rodriguez and Diaz 2007)-to make their risk judgments. Even this characterization could be a little unfair, however. Is it really a bias to heavily discount a tornado warning when less than 1% of the spatial extent of a warned area will experience a tornado, and approximately 70% of all tornado warnings turn out to be false alarms? Additionally, is it irrational to hypothesize links between local geographical features and tornado behavior when a majority of the tornadoes you've heard of conform to these beliefs? (e.g., most tornadoes are short-lived and the local area is hilly, so infer that hills kill tornadoes).

Given the information available to individuals, what we'd like to call "biased" behavior actually can be exceedingly rational and/or efficient from a memory perspective (Fiedler 2000; Dougherty, Gronlund and Gettys 2003; Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier 2011). While Bill had previously experienced a near-miss, was it irrational for him to believe tornadoes don't happen "here, at this very spot"? It is possible that gaining this insight into the way warnings work could make people adjust their personal risk assessments downward for not only tornadoes, but other risks as well. For example, Lazo et al. (2010) found that individuals who had experienced hurricanes in the past were less likely to prepare for future hurricanes.

In addition to cognitive dispositions toward risk, people also make use of subtle nonverbal, intuitive, and experiential rubrics as informational cues for formulating judgments and making decisions. This is known as the affect heuristic (Slovic and Peters 2006). Bill made vivid descriptions of the atmospheric conditions that day, noting that environmental cues were of primary importance in helping him to suspect that the day could be bad generally. He just "felt it in his bones," and he reported a dread-like sensation that was not sufficiently strong on its own to keep him in front of the television for a half hour, but served to keep him alert to weather conditions as he worked on his bike. These sentiments were very common, and are part of the reason that confirming a threat may be so important-people have a fundamental need to observe the threat, whether visually or by touch, smell or sound.

In addition to these senses, affect also includes emotional experiences. Emotionally processing risk information can change the way it is weighted in judgments (Slovic and Peters 2006). Notably, valence-or general type of emotion (like positive vs. negative)-are not predictive on their own; rather, according to the appraisal-tendency framework (Han, Lerner and Keltner 2007), each individual emotion evokes a particular need that is to be filled. Interestingly, an emotion such as fear, which might intuitively seem to put people into a thoughtless frenzy, actually drives deep mental processing and motivates protective responses. Thus, it may be important to understand how to best use fear as tornadoes approach. The attitudes of broadcast meteorologists in particular may be very important to shaping the emotional states of viewers, as reported at the 2011 National Weather Association Town Hall session in Birmingham. While viewers reported a desire to see someone calm and professional, they were reading the fear in the voices and actions of the broadcasters, and these feelings helped them to understand how dire the situation was. This is only a small portion of the literature worth exploring on emotion and affect in general; however, it is important to understand that judgment and decision-making do not occur outside of a fully embodied experience.

It is our hope that this brief introduction to a few relevant geographic and psychological theories stimulates some new lines of thought and discussion among those who are concerned with truly serving and protecting those in harm's way, lines of thought that do not revert to the mantra of "those stupid people in the public sure think some crazy things." Communication is an exercise in mutuality-in learning about the point of view of those with whom you are conversing. To be sure, if meteorologists are heard as they wish to be heard, they need to take some time to listen to-and interpret in an ecologically valid manner-what people are hearing.

* Kimberly E. Klockow ( ) is a doctoral candidate in the department of geography and environmental sustainability at the University of Oklahoma.

** Randy A. Peppler ( ) holds a doctorate in human geography from the University of Oklahoma and is associate director for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies ( CIMMS).


Sheldon Drobot helped conduct interviews in Alabama and Mississippi during the post April 27, 2011, aftermath, and Angelyn Hobson transcribed the many hours of interview recordings made there. Funding for the interviews was provided by the University of Colorado National Hazards Center Grant Program, funded by NSF CMMI1030670.


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