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Sea Grant Social Scientist to Explore Influence of Severe Weather on the Economically Disadvantaged

Images from New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina are indelible in the nation’s consciousness. The 20-by-25-block area was home to some of the city’s more economically disadvantaged people, is located in a low-lying area 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 by using new communication and other tools to save lives and livelihoods,” said Deidre Peroff, Sea Grant’s social scientist, who joined the staff earlier this year.

She was describing a new project she’s engaged with along with Tim Halbach, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Sullivan, Wis. The pair are exploring how those who are in lower-income brackets get weather forecasts and warnings. “What technology are they using? If they are getting the information, are they using it? Are they more or less likely than others in the city to take action?,” posed Peroff.

Peroff explained she and Halbach are in the early stages, which she terms “brainstorming,” of the project that will take place in Milwaukee. Review of existing literature is feeding into that brainstorming.

She said, “Some studies I’ve seen say you’re more likely to respond to a weather warning if you are a woman, have more income and are more educated. Is that because you have more money to replace what might be lost if you leave it behind? Or perhaps it’s a trust issue. Maybe you are in a high-crime area and don’t want to leave your possessions behind for fear of what may happen to them.”

“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.

Part of that assurance will begin with a review of U.S. census data on income by ZIP code to determine areas of the city ripe for further scrutiny and possible outreach and education. Within the larger context of Milwaukee’s economically disadvantaged community, Peroff and Halbach are considering whether or not they will narrow it more, perhaps to the elderly, homeless or certain ethnic clusters—reaching out to some or all of those groups.

This project comes on the heels of a successful collaboration between the NWS and Sea Grant that began in 2013. The Great Lakes Sea Grant Social Science Network and Chris Ellis with the NOAA Coastal Services Center conducted assessments of a pilot communication tool in the NWS Central Region. It provides more detailed tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings. The NWS has implemented the new tool in all of its offices east of the Rockies. Evaluation is ongoing to implement it nationwide.

This past effort, and the new one involving poorer communities in an urban setting, are part of a large NWS initiative called Weather Ready Nation. The goal is to build resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events—making people aware of weather and how it affects what they do. Wisconsin Sea Grant 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.

Her efforts contribute to that and it’s a personally meaningful project. “What’s exciting is that the implications of this project could actually be saving lives. More economically disadvantaged communities could be more vulnerable to losing everything they have—lives, livelihood, property. If we find better ways to communicate, we could have the potential to have a big impact.”

She continued, “This will be one of the first big projects I’m leading as a Sea Grant specialist. Tim had the idea and he wanted a social scientist to work on it. It will be a chance to use skills I’ve developed, quantitatively and qualitatively, and hopefully will pave the way for future work on social equity in the region.”

The project’s approach is likely to combine both focus groups and surveys. In addition to the target population, the focus groups would also pull in trusted community leaders, such as those involved in churches or social service organizations that meet the needs of the economically underserved groups. This will build trust so Peroff and Halbach can 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?

There are, however, many hours of further planning before any kind of definitive path forward is set. Because the findings could likely be more broadly applied, in the end, it all hopefully culminates in no more Lower Ninth Wards.