Meteorologists to help people with unhealthy fear of storms |

Meteorologists to help people with unhealthy fear of storms

he short-term goal of this new project is to make forecasters more aware of the issue and help them deal with calls and messages from storm-anxious people, and help lessen anxiety through education and tornado safety tips.
Photo by Amy Hadachek

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Just the words “storm anxiety” can produce apprehension and nervousness about severe storm outbreaks and tornadoes, and this phrase recently grabbed intensified interest, as a partnership of meteorologists and mental health professionals launched a storm awareness project for the public.

With the imminent 2018 spring storm season right around the corner, the severe weather awareness project, Cleveland County Strong: Strengthening Community Resilience in Tornado Country (also called ‘Storm Anxiety), will be a pivotal community project this spring in Oklahoma. Springtime is the primary severe weather season in the U.S., while autumn is a secondary storm season in many locations with the anticipated arrival of cool fronts and the subsequent clashing of different air masses.

One of the project’s new partners, Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Norman, Okla., initially presented it in September 2017 to 400 meteorologists attending the National Weather Association annual conference in Garden Grove, Calif. It’s hoped that its timeliness will make an impact and lessen fears.

“We want people to have a healthy level of fear and respect for thunderstorms and tornadoes, but too much fear can cause them to act irrationally and perhaps do unsafe things. It’s important to find the right balance,” said Smith, when he presented results from the NWS/Norman’s partnership with the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps Stress Response Team.

“Most storms will not produce a tornado. Tornadoes, especially the dangerous ones form under a special set of weather conditions. Less than 2 percent of tornadoes in Oklahoma ever reach EF4/EF5 intensity,”

There are three levels of Storm Anxiety:

1.) Fear: an emotion caused by anticipation/awareness of danger.

2.) Anxiety: extreme apprehension or worry.

3.) Severe weather phobia: an intense, debilitating, unreasonable fear of severe weather.


Smith said most severe weather phobia results from a direct exposure to an experience of being caught in a tornado, or when the Storm Prediction Center issues a Risk Outlook for the day — especially a High Risk, although it can also be a mention of thunder in the forecast that triggers severe weather phobia.

Some of the fears include: lack of control, uncertainty, the unknown, death or injury and loss of possessions.

“When we ask people what specifically makes them anxious or afraid, the answers range from: issues related to sheltering (I don’t have a shelter, My shelter’s not good enough, I’m worried I won’t be able to get my pets to a safe place, etc.,) to issues related to getting weather information (I’m afraid the sirens won’t wake me up, There’s not good TV coverage in my area, I’m afraid I won’t get enough warning, etc). Some of the most common fears have to do with family — fears about being separated from family and pets and not being able to contact them, fears about being responsible for someone else’s safety (new parents, new pet owners,)” Smith said. “But at the core of many of the fears is they see storms as mysterious and unpredictable, and severe weather makes them feel like they have no control over the situation.”

The short-term goal of this new project is to make forecasters more aware of the issue and help them deal with calls and messages from storm-anxious people, and help lessen anxiety through education and tornado safety tips.

Grant funding for the Storm Anxiety project will be spent in 2018 through 2019. The partnership plans to make a significant impact beginning this storm season, which is April through June 2018. They have five specific goals to help the community, said John A. Call, Ph.D., J.D., ABPP and unit coordinator, Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps Stress Response Team, based in Oklahoma City.

“Goal No. 1: a three-hour training will be provided March 30 to National Weather Service personnel in Norman, Okla., for Psychological First Aid for Disasters, 2) a one-hour community-oriented informational seminar/workshop with handouts will be offered to Cleveland County citizens at key locales such as public libraries, churches and schools upon several occasions just prior to and during the storm season. This seminar will be co-sponsored by the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps and the Norman Office of Emergency Management. 3) The project partners have hired a web designer who is working on a website to advise how to prepare for severe weather, what to do during a storm, after a storm, tips for parents, and referrals to other resources including crisis. 4) Also, a three-hour training will be developed and provided to certain 211 Oklahoma hotline call specialists regarding how to interact with the storm anxious caller, Call said. The 211 Oklahoma hotline is a sustainable, easy-access system for information and referral to community services for those who need help and those who provide help. Finally, 5) a number of Oklahoma MRC volunteers are being trained and equipped to provide medical and psychological first aid to storm survivors while accompanying either Cleveland County, Norman Emergency Management or National Weather Service personnel, who are assessing damage subsequent to a severe storm in Cleveland County,” Call said.

Here’s an easy way to remember the difference between a watch and a warning:


A watch means conditions are favorable for that type of weather (tornado, severe thunderstorm or other.) Think: “Watch out. This is possible. Get a plan ready.”

A warning means a red warning light should be going off in our heads. A warning for a severe thunderstorm, tornado or other means that particular type of weather has been spotted or is imminent so take action now.

Severe storm experts say it’s normal to have a heightened level of awareness when a severe storm is approaching.

“National Weather Service staff work hard to provide everyone with critical information as far in advance as possible, but the best information isn’t helpful unless you receive it in time to take action. Have a severe weather plan, practice it with your family and be ready to take action when warnings are issued,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations for the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center based in Norman. “That’s one way to minimize anxiety and to be prepared as severe storm season approaches.”

Being prepared means being ready to head to your basement or storm shelter, or in the lowest and middle room in your home during severe storms and tornadoes. Although mobile homes are not safe in tornadoes, residents can decide in advance; where to seek safe shelter. Also, have a plan for a pet that may include a carrier, food, water, a leash and practice getting your pet inside a shelter.

If your community has a storm shelter registration program, Smith said to register with your storm shelter with the local emergency manager or fire department. This database will assist them in knowing which homes have storm shelters to search, in the rare event the worst case happens.

To counter the fears, Smith reminds us:

“Most storms will not produce a tornado. Tornadoes, especially the dangerous ones form under a special set of weather conditions. Less than 2 percent of tornadoes in Oklahoma ever reach EF4/EF5 intensity (on the Enhanced Fujita/EF Tornado Damage Scale of 0-5),” Smith said.

Educate and empower are two words to help counteract the other two words Storm Anxiety. Being determined to make a plan, and have not just one way, but several ways of receiving weather information will help reduce anxiety.

The NWS project in Norman has received growing interest from other NWS offices. While the NWS has known for years that people have serious issues with storm anxiety, they notice more people have anxiety following any significant severe weather event. “The numbers likely increased significantly after the May 2013 tornadoes,” Smith said. “That’s when we really started thinking about how we could help these people.” ❖


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