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"It Just Seems Like Storms Always Go There, Not Here"

  • By Kim Klockow McClain
  • Nov 6, 2023

Kim Klockow McClain

Have you ever felt this way about the place you live? Does it feel like anytime storms roll through, the worst seems to go around you, or you may even feel like storms “break up” just before they get to you?

Do you feel, deep down, like the place you live just won’t be hit by a tornado? Or if you live along the coast, perhaps, that a hurricane is unlikely to affect you directly?

Some research I’ve done in this area shows that you might not be alone. And the effect of these beliefs, in some cases, could be consequential.

While studying the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, I heard many versions of this sentiment - sometimes it was a belief that hills would have killed off a tornado before it reached a person. Sometimes it was a belief that a city landscape would be protective, or simply that tornadoes had favored paths where they had gone before, even if that was only a few miles away. Many tornado survivors had actively sought weather information that day, and they monitored to see if storms hit nearby places that might signal that the storm could hit them - a process called personalizing the threat. But after that, things sometimes got fuzzy. Even for tornadoes that had been on the ground for hours, people sometimes held to these beliefs, and they watched up until the very last minute before sheltering as a consequence.

Making sense of this first meant detailing the nature of the beliefs. If you’re interested, I wrote that up in this paper. From there, I wanted to know if people who had lower perceptions of risk for the place they lived did anything differently when severe weather was possible from those who felt the place they lived in was very risk prone. To explore this question, I turned to my own backyard, and sampled widely across the Oklahoma City metro area. My coauthors and I found striking spatial patterns to perceptions of risk from tornadoes, suggesting that this knowledge was either partially socially constructed, or arrived at through some shared judgment process. We also found that for people who felt their area was less risk prone, even in Central Oklahoma (a very tornado-prone place!), they were significantly less likely to prepare during a tornado watch. A lack of preparedness at this stage could leave an individual or family flat-footed if a tornado did approach their home later on.

Since I conducted these studies, I’ve had people reach out to me with news articles when similar beliefs are shared in other places or for other hazards. One big example is the city of Tampa: when Hurricane Irma was nearing Florida, some residents resisted evacuating the city because they felt that it was protected. The same thing came up again in news interviews when Ian came by. In both cases, the hurricanes did avoid Tampa, and when that happens I always wonder if the population takes that as confirmation that their beliefs are correct.

For both tornadoes and hurricanes, the physical science does not suggest that storms favor particular places; their development is guided by forces on much larger scales, and if there are small-scale issues of importance (like topography), their influence seems limited to very particular conditions. And even in those conditions, they would influence whether the hazard formed at all, not so much where it would go. But for those of us living on the ground, we reason about weather risk using frames of reference on the ground; we see things from the ground up, not dispassionately from the sky down, as meteorologists often do.

Have you heard folklore like this where you live? I’d love to hear from you if you have!