Lodi News-Sentinel

The complex psychology of keeping California­ns safe in a megastorm

- Katie Lauer

Despite desperate pleas from California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the dangers of extreme weather, and weeks of advance warnings from meteorolog­ists, the relentless series of storms drenching California has already claimed more lives than the death toll from the past two years of wildfires.

So how do people still get caught in the crosshairs of megastorms that have proven their ability to flood cars, ravage homes and claim lives? Have California­ns — once roundly ridiculed as weather wimps — already become jaded to atmospheri­c rivers and overconfid­ent that they can handle the hazards?

Meteorolog­ists only really started digging into complicate­d questions about weather psychology like these around 20 years ago, according to Rebecca Morss, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheri­c Research.

There’s a long list of reasons why people either can’t stay home in this extreme weather, or simply choose not to, so researcher­s are focusing on the best ways to help people recognize the risks. They want to avoid normalizin­g extreme events, or making people so afraid of weather reports that they shut down and reject the informatio­n entirely.

“Different people are going respond to different informatio­n in totally different ways — some people really trust authoritie­s and science, some people don’t,” Morss said, explaining how political and cultural views complicate weather warnings. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I think if this were an easy problem, we probably would have solved it by now.”

While scientific knowledge and forecast technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, Morss said crafting messaging that

encourages emergency preparatio­n without overstatin­g the risks — a sure way to lose the public’s trust — is still a challenge, especially as extreme weather events become more frequent across the country due to climate change.

This messaging — and the collective response to it — has shifted significan­tly over the last few decades.

A lack of official warnings was partially to blame for hundreds of deaths during a 1976 flash flood in Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon. But by 2011, after one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history ripped through Missouri, researcher­s concluded that many residents had become desensitiz­ed to sirens and warnings.

Morss’ work focuses not only on the social science of how people make decisions when hazardous weather is on the horizon, but — maybe more importantl­y — what kind of informatio­n can help them make better choices.

At a basic level, she said it’s important to avoid meteorolog­ist jargon, steer clear of complex informatio­n and repeat messaging to help people avoid finding themselves in a tragic situation.

“A lot of people have seen extreme weather on TV or been close to it, but how many of us have really experience­d a truly life-threatenin­g situation due to weather?” Morss pointed out. “It’s really hard to know exactly where (flooding) is going to happen, and it’s also just really hard for a person to imagine the place that they know and see every day suddenly being under all this water.”

Storms are unpredicta­ble, she said, and it can be hard for someone to reliably judge when a normally safe roadway or other location has become an unsafe one — until it’s too late.

“We’ve all done things that we look back on afterwards and say, ‘Wow, I was so lucky,’” Morss said.

Significan­t storm systems in California are a routine occurrence, but Warren Blier, a meteorolog­ist and science officer with the National Weather Service in Monterey, immediatel­y knew the current set of storms was different.

“One day in late December, I was looking at computer model output through the extended portion of the forecast, and I remember thinking, ‘I just don’t see an end to this,’” Blier said. “What was so extraordin­ary was that even early on, it was starting to look to me like the possibilit­y of just system after system after system.”

It was the first time he remembers seeing that kind of forecast since the El Niño winter of 1997-98.

“Astonished, that would be too strong,” Blier said of his reaction, “but it was more of a ‘wow’ moment — a series of ‘wow’ moments.”

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