Tackling Tennessee Tornadoes

Featured Scientist: Jayme Walters, she/her/hers, PhD, Utah State University (Graduated from University of Tennessee with my PhD in 2020)

Dr. Jayme Walters stands in a field with a mountain in the backdrop. She has her hands on her hips.
Dr. Jayme Walters, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Utah State University

Birthplace: Southern Illinois

My Research: The focus of my research is to understand and improve the well-being of disadvantaged and oppressed individuals and families in Rural America. I study rural nonprofits and other organizations in persistently poor counties, their ability to accomplish their missions, and how being in impoverished, rural communities impacts their work. My work contributes to rural-focused literature in social work and nonprofit management. Using research to identify potential connections between place-based issues and organizational capacity is important to ensure that rural nonprofits can accomplish their goals and serve their communities. 

Research Goals: Moving forward, I will continue to develop research and interventions to improve the capacity and effectiveness of nonprofits so that they may successfully serve rural communities. I hope to serve as an advocate for organizations in rural communities to share their incredible impact and help to communicate their needs to funders.

Career Goals: I love being a professor! I hope to continue to be a researcher, teacher, and serve our communities in an effort to make positive changes.

Hobbies: Going to concerts, shopping, listening to music and audiobooks, hiking, and being with my family.

Favorite Thing About Science: There is some comfort in the predictability of the research. But often, what comes out of the process is unexpected, and that’s exciting. Being able to contribute to the generation of knowledge is a privilege.

Field of Study: Social Work

What is Social Work? Social work is a practice-based profession that promotes healthy well-being of people and their communities. We engage, in a collaborative way, with communities to provide assessment, intervention, and evaluation to ensure social change and improvement, particularly for individuals and families who are most vulnerable and oppressed.

Scientist Upbringing: I hated science when I was a kid. My brain just struggled with “hard sciences” – and some of that was lack of confidence and believing that I was not smart enough. Also, I was told regularly that science was a “boy” subject; as a girl, my place was to appreciate English and literature. I didn’t realize until I was in college that social sciences were a “thing.” Actually, it wasn’t until I was in undergraduate social work research class that I realized I liked the research process, and I could make a career of it. I appreciate the mentoring of my first research professor, Dr. Wayne Paris, who not only started my interest in research but also provided much-needed encouragement. 

My Team: The work related to social response to tornadoes was part of my PhD studies. I worked alongside my mentor, Dr. Lisa Reyes Mason, and her research collaborator, Dr. Kelsey Ellis. These projects with Dr. Reyes Mason and Dr. Ellis helped me to understand the research process from start to finish. This work also provided insight to place-based issues and research, which is a major component in my main line research. They are excellent mentors and allowed me to lead a few studies which gave me confidence and skill to lead my own work now.

Supporting Scientist: Dr. Kelsey Ellis, PhD, University of Tennessee.

Dr. Kelsey Ellis storm chasing in 2006. Dr. Ellis smiles at the camera, wind blowing in her hair. There is an active tornado in the background.
Dr. Kelsey Ellis, Associate Professor of Geography at University of Tennessee Knoxville

Birthplace: Baltimore, Maryland

My Research: I study the climatology of atmospheric hazards, including tornadoes, hurricanes, heat, and others.

Research Goals: I want to continue to study hazards in an interdisciplinary nature so as to make the biggest difference for public safety.

Career Goals: I am very happy in my current department and hope to help lead it to a successful future.

Hobbies: Baking, exercising, playing with my dogs and kiddos.

Favorite Thing About Science: Discovering new things that no one has ever known before.

Scientist Upbringing: I always had an interest in the weather and thought I would be a television meteorologist, but once I started doing research I loved it!

My Team: This is one paper out of many that came from funding we had from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from a project called VORTEX-Southeast, which aims to study tornadoes in the Southeast through an interdisciplinary nature. I was the climatologist in the group, and this specific paper was led by the Social Workers.

Field of Study: Geography

What is Geography? Geography is the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Examining patterns of intended response to tornado warnings among residents of Tennessee, United States through a latent class analysis approach”

A QR code that links to the article in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
QR code to original publication

Citation: Walters, JE, Mason, LR, Ellis, KN. (2018). Examining patterns of intended response to tornado warnings among residents of Tennessee, United States through a latent class analysis approach. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. 34: 375-386.

Article written by Lesley Knox (she/her), sophomore, Rachel McCarthy (she/her) sophomore, Driana James (she/her) sophomore, and Jacob Hollenhead (he/him) freshman, Pellissippi State Community College. Student authors were enrolled in the Fundamentals of Communication (COMM 2025) at Pellissippi State Community college during the Spring 2022 term.

Research At A Glance: With respect to tornados, the United States is the most active place in the world. The southern portion of the U.S. has seen a high number of fatalities. Research suggests that this can be attributed to residents not seeking appropriate shelter. This study examines how likely residents are to respond to tornado warnings, with the goal of implementing early warnings that will reach those most at risk. The goal is to help the National Weather Service (NWS) identify those who are most at risk, in what ways they are most likely to be targeted in an emergency, and if further public education would be helpful.

In this study, the authors asked participants questions about how they respond to tornado warnings when and if they receive weather notifications. They learned about interesting factors that influence how people respond. People ignore tornado warnings for several reasons: they don’t have the financial ability to leave, they don’t have proper transportation, or they don’t have a safe place to go. But some people don’t have faith that the weather has been predicted correctly or how seriously to take it, because of false alarms in the past. People often wait too long to act or take shelter, and these actions can result in death. The findings identify a group of people who are at risk of not seeking safety after a tornado warning. There is a correlation between the number of warning notifications and a positive safety action for various reasons, including being elderly, not possessing smartphones, or being harder to reach in an emergency. Misinformation also plays a role. Some people have been through a tornado before and were unharmed. Others were unharmed after a tornado and thought that bodies of water or large buildings protected and would continue to protect them. These experiences influence what they believe will happen in future tornados. The NWS can use this information to target the people most at risk to try more ways of notifying them and to educate them about seeking safety in a tornado.

Highlights: In this study, the authors randomly surveyed 1126 people in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The survey included people who had cell phones and those that had landlines. To survey participants, the researchers used a computerized technology that interviews people over the telephone. Participants were randomly assigned a daytime or nighttime scenario, then asked what they would do if they received a tornado warning. The purpose of the survey was to understand how people respond to a tornado warning, regardless of when it might be received. The authors divided the participants into 3 groups based on their answers to the survey: tech users, typical actors, and passive or non-reactors (Figure 1). Typical actors were the largest group in the study. Typical actors were people who reacted to a tornado warning by looking for more information on the television, through the radio, or sometimes on the internet. Typical actors tended to be middle-aged people who were married or living with a long-term partner. They had access to a basement or storm shelter and had a higher income than other groups. Typical actors made up 54% of the daytime survey participants and 68% of the nighttime survey participants. Tech users were people who would respond to tornado warnings by looking for more information on the internet or through an app and were likely to seek shelter. Tech users were usually people who owned a smartphone and had young children living in the home. They made up 29% of daytime survey participants and 26% of the nighttime survey participants. Passive reactors were people who were given the daytime scenario and would not take any safety measures after receiving the warning. However, passive reactors tended to speak to friends, family, or others about the warning. Seventeen percent of the daytime survey participants were passive reactors. Non-reactors were people given the nighttime scenario who would do nothing after receiving a tornado warning. Only 4% of the nighttime survey participants were non-reactors.The smaller group of passive reactors and non-reactors were mostly made up of senior citizens, females, and long-term residents of Tennessee. These findings are important because they identify people who do and do not react to the tornado warnings. These findings can help the NWS determine future safety measures.

Pie charts that show the percentage of participants identified as typical actors, tech users, and passive and non-reactors.
Figure 1. The percentage of participants placed in each group in the daytime (above) and nighttime (below) scenarios.

What My Science Looks Like: Figures 2 and 3 show how people stated that they would respond if they received a tornado warning. During the daytime scenario, all participants would look outside at their surroundings or contact friends and family. Even so, there was a big difference between how tech users and how typical actors sought out additional information. There was a 100% probability that tech users would seek more information from the internet, and they were also more likely to contact friends and family. Typical actors were more likely to turn on the tv or radio for more information but had only a 50% probability of using an app on their phones to get more information. Conversely, passive reactors had a high probability of doing nothing after a tornado warning.

A bar graph that shows how tech users, typical actors, and passive reactors would respond to a tornado warning during the daytime
Figure 2. Actions or inactions that participants chose in the study, given the daytime scenario.

During the nighttime scenario, typical actors and tech users responded similarly. Typical actors and tech users were equally likely to get more information from the tv or the radio and were almost equally likely to look outside. However, there was a higher chance that typical actors and tech users would do nothing during the night, likely because people are sleeping or tired. It should also be noted that the non-reactors were less likely to turn on the TV or radio, seek additional information, or contact friends or family, than their daytime passive reactor counterparts. These results are consistent with the information suggesting that tornadoes that occur during the night are more deadly than those that happen during the day. The findings indicate that the group most at risk of harm are the passive reactors or non-reactors. The NWS can take steps to reach this group in the future.

A bar graph that shows how tech users, typical actors, and passive reactors would respond to a tornado warning during the nighttime.
Figure 3. Actions or inactions that participants chose in the study, given the nighttime scenario.

The Big Picture: On average, the United States has more annual tornadoes than any other country. U.S. tornadoes produce property damage, billions of dollars in reconstruction and relief aid, and significant numbers of fatalities each year. The southern region of the U.S. (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas) has experienced 11 of the 25 deadliest tornadoes ever recorded. This experiment examines behavioral patterns in response to tornado warnings among residents in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The authors found that people who received a warning during the day were more likely to act. They also found that the more notifications someone gets about a tornado, the more likely they are to take safety actions. Participants that were passive or non-reactive were found most at risk. The NWS is now considering adding or increasing warning messages to encourage others to reach out to passive or non-reactors. The information from this study can be used better target at-risk individuals in the future.

Decoding The Language:

Behavioral patterns: Behavioral patterns refers to how an individual or group responds to an object or a situation. It is repeated behavior. In the context of this article, a behavioral pattern would be how a person regularly responds when they receive a tornado warning.

Climatologist: A climatologist is a scientist who studies weather patterns over long periods of time.

Climatology: Climatology is the study of the atmosphere and weather patterns over long periods of time.

National Weather Service (NWS): The National Weather service is a federal agency that provides all climate forecasts and warnings in the United States.

Non-reactor: A non-reactor was a study participant interviewed during the nighttime. These were people who would not move to safety or seek out further information from any sources in the event of a tornado warning.

Organizational capacity: Organizational capacity refers to an organization’s ability to perform its designated duties. For example, the NWS has to be able to coordinate across its regional offices to make sure that people receive information about tornados in their local areas and to receive those warnings in a timely fashion, with the goal of saving lives. The organizational capacity would be the ability to the NWS to take each of the necessary steps to achieve this goal.

Passive reactor: In the context of this study, passive reactors were people given the daytime survey and who unlikely to act in the event of a tornado warning. The had a “passive” response when they receive a tornado warning.

Place-based issues: Place-based issues are problems specific to certain places or regions that can be addressed by improving the conditions of the entire community associated with the area. For example, improving the health outcomes of a region may involve bringing in community stakeholders to improve hospitals, recreational facilities, and housing, with the goal of holistically creating a healthier community.

Probability: Probability is a mathematical term that describes how likely it is that an event will occur and is represented by a number that falls between 0 and 1. If the probability is high, or closer to 1, then it is more likely to occur. If the probability is low, or close to 0, then it is less likely to occur.

Social work: Social work is a profession that strives to support the basic needs of people, families, and communities. Social workers might work as therapists, counselors, researchers, case workers, care takers, administrators, community organizers, and more.

Tech user: A tech user was a study participant who was likely to respond to a tornado warning by actively using technology. These participants would use the Internet or smartphone app to gather more information.

Typical actor: A typical actor was a study participant ho was likely to respond to a tornado warning by seeking out further information by turning on the TV or listening to the radio.

Learn More:

The Fujita Scale of tornado damage intensity from the National Weather Service.

Information on tornado alerts from the National Weather Service.

A research article on messaging strategies used by weather forecasters:

Liu, B., Atwell Seate, A., Iles, I., & Herovic, E. (2020). Tornado Warning: Understanding the National Weather Service’s Communication Strategies. Public Relations Review, 46(2), 101879.

Synopsis edited by Rosario Marroquin-Flores (she/her), PhD 2022, Illinois State University and Katy Ross (they/she), PhD 2019, Ohio University.

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Synopsis Authors:

Lesley Knox (she/her) sophomore at Pellissippi State Community College.

Lesley with her wife sit on a bench. Their and daughter sits between them.

Lesley has always lived in Tennessee, but resides in Knoxville, TN with her wife, Daisy, and daughter, Lainey. She enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, and reading. Lesley is studying Imaging Sciences with the hopes of becoming a doctor in radiology.

Rachel McCarthy (she/her), sophomore at Pellissippi State Community College.

Rachel holds her daughter. There is a lake and mountains in the background.

Rachel has traveled and lived all over the world, but now has settled in Oak Ridge, TN, close to her parents, siblings, and extended family. She is a mother to her daughter, Aria, and they enjoy baking, kayaking, playing with their 2 dogs, and playing piano together. Rachel is studying Business Management, teaches music to school-aged children, and volunteers in her community and church.

Driana James (she/her), sophomore at Pellissippi State Community College.

Driana holds her daughter, while her daughter kisses her cheek. There is a prairie in the background.

Driana plans to have an A.A.S. in Business Management come May! Driana has had a license through Tennessee as an Aesthetician since 2017. She hopes to take her career into marketing or data analytics.  She was blessed with a best friend, and a daughter in January 2019. She spends her days being a mom and student as of right now. Driana longs for the days we can have barbecues, spend all day at the parks, and have 9:00 p.m. sunsets since summer is her favorite season.

Jacob Hollenhead (he/him), freshman at Pellissippi State Community College.

Jacob and his girlfriend smile at the camera. There is an ocean with a setting sun in the background.

He was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee where he still resides. He is going to school for Architectural Design Technologies, with hopes of designing houses in the future. Jacob enjoys playing his guitar, spending time with his niece and nephew, and fishing with his dad when the weather permits it.

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