NORMAN — Weather experts are taking a fresh look at twisters through a series of Tornado Town Hall meetings.
Residents of three communities currently scheduled for such meetings will be asked to share their knowledge of tornadoes. Instead of the traditional workshops where National Weather Service personnel present videos and tips on tornado preparedness and response, their personnel and others in the weather-safety field will listen.
“We're learning that local beliefs can influence people's perceptions of threat from tornadoes nearly as much as any information we're providing them,” said Kim Klockow, of the University of Oklahoma College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences.
“If we hope to make a message that people understand, we need to know how people in our local area think about tornadoes. We know a lot about the weather, but we know much less about the beliefs or local knowledge of the local people who are experiencing it.”
The format of the meetings is mostly town hall style. People will first come in and answer a few questions on paper and then they'll break into small groups to discuss their answers. Then, a large group discussion will be held.
“We're hoping that we get a lively and active discussion, and possibly some debate among the participants,” said Randy Peppler, of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. “We may do a few in-depth interviews with some of the people at some point regarding the origins of their knowledge.”
The project is led by Klockow, Peppler, and Rick Smith, of the National Weather Service, Norman Forecast Office. But at least 10 other volunteers from the National Weather Center in Norman will be involved.
“Honestly, this is pretty new territory,” Klockow said. “This might be the first time meteorologists have really tried to learn about other ways of thinking about tornadoes from local people. This builds on some research findings we made in Alabama and Mississippi in the aftermath of the tornado outbreak in April 2011.”
If the local efforts are successful, organizers are hopeful that similar town hall meetings will be held by National Weather Service forecast offices across the country.
The first of the meetings is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Lowry Room at the Norman Public Library, 225 N Webster in Norman. Meetings are also tentatively planned for Sept. 20 in Moore and Oct. 4 in Newcastle. Each meeting will focus on that specific community.
“These were chosen because they're nearby, and we've heard a lot of interesting opinions about tornadoes impacting these areas,” Klockow said. “All three of these towns have been impacted by tornadoes in recent years.”
National Weather Service personnel hope that these three communities are just the start.
“If we are to serve the public in the most meaningful way possible, we believe it is important to have some grasp of where they are coming from with respect to tornado knowledge,” Peppler said. “Tornado stories and local knowledge about them are fascinating.
“It is not our goal to dispel myths but to learn about what people know, including knowledge relating to particular places, not only to help us as scientists understand but also to then better communicate what we know about tornadoes to people.”