University of Alabama researchers to study severe weather communications on the Gulf Coast

A new study by a team of faculty from the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences will examine the effectiveness of public messaging in helping Gulf Coast residents stay safe during hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

Cory Armstrong, professor of journalism and creative media, Matthew VanDyke, assistant professor of advertising and public relations, and Brian Britt, associate professor of advertising and public relations, are supported on the project by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.

They will analyze social media discussions and conduct interviews and surveys to understand the information channels, tools and resources that coastal emergency managers, community leaders and residents use for short-term decision making. long-term when preparing for and traversing extreme weather conditions.

“We’re not weather experts, but we’re communications experts,” Armstrong said. “What we can bring to this project, and what appeals to the people at Sea Grant, is that we can understand the communication and the distribution of these messages and how to measure that, how to understand it and then how to give recommendations on how these experts get their messages.

Understanding how the public receives and reacts to severe weather alerts and warnings can help emergency managers craft the most effective messages to save lives. The team will focus on the three southernmost emergency management areas in Mississippi and the two southernmost areas in Alabama.

Hurricane Sally hit Alabama during the 2020 hurricane season. The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and the University of Alabama are researching the most effective ways to communicate crucial information to coastal populations during weather events extremes. (NOAA)

The study will be carried out in three phases over a period of two years. The first phase will be to analyze conversation patterns on social media. By researching specific keywords, hashtags, and date ranges on these platforms, the team can gauge how people seek out and convey information and concerns before, during, and after extreme weather events.

“Before these tools were available, you had to rely on survey data and retrospective-type items that would be harder to get a complete and possibly accurate picture of how things played out” , VanDyke said. “This is an exciting new application for theory, but also for gaining more valid insight into what public debate looks like in these areas.”

The second phase includes an engagement plan in which the team will interview decision-makers, such as emergency managers and city officials, to understand when they decide to start preparing before a storm arrives, what tools they use to make those decisions and how they deal with risk. factors to their domains.

“Decision makers may or may not have the technical knowledge and understanding to decipher the meaning of uncertainty,” VanDyke said. “What scientists mean by uncertainty may be different from how we the general public interpret uncertainty, so it’s really important to be able to reconcile the needs of the public and those of decision makers.”

Focus groups will be held with community members and public opinion leaders to see how they assess official messages and how they will make choices during the storms.

“Understanding and terminology are the big issues,” Armstrong said. “I can see the need for training and awareness of the meaning of watches, warnings and those types of terms, or perhaps finding more uniform terms to talk about coastal issues.”

Bayou La Batre experienced flooding prior to Hurricane Sally. (Liza Gazzier Johnson)

The third phase will use large-scale sample surveys to determine differences in information processing and tools, with particular emphasis on comparing underserved, urban and rural populations.

“People who live in urban areas have this belief that it’s not going to happen to them or it’s not going to be that bad,” Armstrong said. “Then there are people in rural areas who live in the floodplains. Every time a huge storm comes, they get inundated, and they may be better prepared than others because it happens so often.

Armstrong said taking all of this information and coming up with a mitigation plan, especially in underserved areas, is one of the primary goals of this study.

“We’re talking about people with limited resources who can’t afford to evacuate,” she said. “Hurricane Katrina proved that sometimes you just can’t leave. What kind of plans can we make for those people who cannot or will not evacuate? I’m still concerned about that.

The team will provide its findings after each phase so that decision makers can continuously analyze and update their plans as the project progresses. A summary of the entire study will be made available to the academic and practitioner communities at the end of the two-year period.

“Here in Alabama, there’s a big push to get more resources built, more information pooled, more accurate predictions, and it’s just marrying that with where people actually are,” VanDyke said. . “In many cases, it’s not so much an information problem as it is an infrastructure problem, or as much as it is values ​​or personal experience or whatever barriers prevent people from using that information. “

This story was previously published on the University of Alabama website. A version of the story was originally published by the Alabama Water Institute at the University of Alabama.

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