“We didn’t know it was coming.”
April Taylor heard that again and again, and she didn’t understand it.
Taylor, a social scientist, was working on trauma recovery in DeKalb County in northeast Alabama following the April 27, 2011, tornado super outbreak.
One of those tornadoes, an EF-5, the most powerful tornado category on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, ripped right through DeKalb County, killing 25 people and leaving many others in shock.
A weather enthusiast, Taylor had watched the storms roll across Alabama on that day in 2011. She knew every county west of DeKalb had a tornado warning issued for it at some point.
One look at the map that day said it all. Storms were on their way, and they were going to be bad.
How did anyone NOT know it was coming?
That spawned the idea for an experiment.
“I pulled together a map and a group of people with college degrees,” she said. “It was seven people. And I passed out a map of the northern half of Alabama with the major highways listed. And I asked them: Label your home county, label the surrounding counties. Put a dot where your hometown is and if you can where your school and your church and all that is.”
The results astonished her.
“Seven people. All with college degrees. Only three people could label their home county. Only three. Only one was able to label surrounding counties,” she said.
“And I thought, ‘OK. We’ve got something here.”’
What was once a little experiment got bigger. It became something of a pet project for Taylor, who would bring out her maps whenever she got a group of people together to test her theory.
And she kept getting the same results: Many Alabamians struggled to find their locations on a map.
Taylor took her results to Kevin Laws at the National Weather Service in Birmingham.
“When I went to Kevin with the information, at our first meeting I said, ‘I want PSAs, I’ve got a theme song picked out,” Taylor said with a laugh.
Laws was not unfamiliar with the problem but was surprised by Taylor’s results.
“Isn’t it incredible?” he said. “It crosses every demographic. I think that’s what is shocking.”
Then they got to work to figure out what to do with it.
“The biggest counter that you can have to severe weather is situational awareness,” Laws said. “And part of situational awareness is knowing it’s coming.
“And that’s what she (Williams) uncovered,” Laws continued. “She said, ‘They didn’t know it was coming.’ You have to know it, whether it’s five days in advance, an hour in advance or 10 minutes in advance. You have to know it’s coming.”
A large part of that is simply knowing where you are — and it turns out not enough people can say that with certainty when just looking at a map.
“If we are issuing graphics, polygons, forecasts, whatever, and you don’t know where you are on that map, you have no situational awareness. That’s the key here. That’s the critical component that holds all of this together in my opinion.”
It’s a problem not limited to the weather service. Broadcast meteorologists hear it all the time. It can be both frustrating and horrifying.
Part of the problem could be simply the maps themselves, according to Dr. Laura Myers, a senior research scientist and the director the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama who has also been studying the issue.
“When you look at a map, a lot of times they just throw up a map with the county borders on it, so there’s no county name, there’s rarely a city name, there are no roadways on the map. And people are not really familiar with that kind of map,” she said.
“They have no reference point. And they look at it – and they don’t even get to look at it for very long if it’s on TV – that map’s being thrown up and then it’s gone – and so they just have a couple of seconds to really adjust to it. But if they’re looking at it on social media they’re looking at a pretty distorted map. They’re trying to figure out – OK, where’s my reference point, where’s my county in reference to a city or in reference to an interstate highway? And you just can’t do that without those reference points.”
Another issue is simply this: People just don’t use maps the same way they used to.
Flash back to life before smartphones, when many relied on a road atlas to get around.
“I think back in the day we used to use maps more,” Myers said. “We used to use atlases when we traveled. We had better awareness. And as technology developed and everybody got used to using GPS and apps and everything, they let those things tell them where to go and where they are. And we let the technology tell us as opposed to us doing the work.”
Now there are plans to look at the problem on a wider level.
Myers will be leading a study, set to begin this spring and lasting through the fall, on this very issue.
Myers said that researchers plan to fan out across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi – and they’re going to bring maps along.
Volunteers will be tested on their situational awareness.
“They’re going to indicate on a basic county map where they live. And they’ll drop a point on there, and we’ll have their address,” Myers said.
“And so we’ll know how far from their actual address that they indicated on that map that they live. … And so that technology will measure the distance from where they think they live to where they actually live.”
Researchers will take that information and use it to recommend how maps can be made more readily understandable.