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Tornadoes and the deaf community

Tornadoes and the deaf community: Are you reaching all of your citizens?

From idisaster 2.0, October 14, 2011 -- Thanks to Peg

In September, a deaf woman who blogs under the name “xpressive hands” posted a story about her experiences trying to gain critical life-saving crisis communications during major severe weather events and the earthquake in Central Pennsylvania. For her, the answer became twitter. This passage illustrates why.

“Twitter gave me up to the minute road closures from tweets by others trying to get back to their homes. Road after road was flooding as tweet after tweet appeared telling us which roads not to take. Because of these tweets, my husband was able to get off of work just in time to come through the secondary roads before they, too, were closed. At first, no one thought it was anything to be in a hurry about..then the flash floods started.”

One thing that stood out to me from her story was that she was not gaining the critical info from emergency response personnel but from others in the impacted area. She states “Twitter is instant, accessible, and if you follow the right people, accurate.” That begs the question, shouldn’t we, in the emergency management community, be in that information stream?

Phd candidate Steph Jo Kent took the question of how the deaf community receives critical information a step further. What follows is her examination of how that community received information during an outbreak of tornados in Western Massachusetts on June 1, 2011. Where the above example provides anecdotal evidence and one person’s opinion, this research provides a more in depth analysis. This is a cross post. She blogs at “Reflexivity“.

By: Steph Jo Kent “Tornadoes and the Deaf Community in Western Massachusetts”

Last spring and summer was windy in Massachusetts: a gust front on May 4th, possible microbursts on May 26-27, and then four people died in the seven tornadoes that tore across Massachusetts in early June.

Using a regional email list to contact a convenience sample, a brief, spontaneous survey was used to gather information about the Deaf community’s experience with the system of Emergency Management in the region. As far as I’m aware, no Deaf people were adversely affected by the tornadoes, which means there are no particular experiences with First Responders to report – good or bad (this time). Nonetheless the survey generated some interesting data which might be useful in generating hypotheses for future testing and eventually guiding design for better warning systems, improved emergency preparation, and the smooth integration of emergency response service delivery to people with so-called “functional needs” or otherwise requiring “additional assistance.”

Demographics and Timing

Ten Deaf and seventeen non-deaf (“hearing”) people responded to the survey. They live and work all over the western part of the state (see map). The sample is too tiny for statistical significance, but shows that three times as many non-deaf “Hearing” people learned of the tornado warning before the tornadoes formed, and twice as many Deaf learned of the tornadoes only after they had occurred.

Sources of Warning:

Warnings Reach More Hearing People than Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

Contrary to what one would expect based on Deaf cultural norms, the community grapevine was not effective in alerting Deaf people to the Tornado Warning. While this may be a feature of the relative isolation of Deaf people living in the rural part of the state, it definitely highlights the importance of making sure mainstream messages are also channeled directly and conspicuously in a manner to catch “the deaf eye.”

Deaf not alerted by friends or family? Counters common sense...

People who did receive the Warning were likely to learn about it from several sources. Fifty percent reported learning about the tornadoes from more than one media source. Being ‘plugged in’ to various media might increase the chances that you will receive a Warning in a timely fashion.

Social Media and news beats out face-to-face communication

As mentioned above, these results suggest directions for further investigation. In addition to the numbers, several respondents added comments or questions, providing some qualitative hints about where to focus future efforts at improving communication with the Deaf community regarding emergency warnings.

Conflicting Signals

Below, I will post the brief explanations people gave about how they learned about the tornadoes. One story caught my attention because of a similarity with a story from a survivor of the Joplin, MO tornado. The National Weather Service (NWS) Service Assessment reports variations in the perception of risk by residents in Joplin based upon “signals” from the environment. Some of the signals from the business community were in conflict:

…the restaurant shut its doors and refused entry, this resident perceived the threat of severe weather as real and commented during the interview that he did not want to be in his car. Upon arriving at another restaurant close by, however, his perception of threat was diminished because business at this second establishment was carrying on as normal: he was escorted to a table and ordered a meal. (p. 6)

Here is one of the respondents to the survey about the tornadoes in western Massachusetts:

“I went shopping in the town of Hadley… and noticed the darkening of the skies…while I was still in the store.. When I got out.. it was thundering and lightening very badly.. and I went on to shop at 2 more stores.. nearby.. not realizing the tornado was hitting Spfld.”

Hadley is not one of the communities struck by a tornado, so the comparison between the two experiences is not tight. The point about perception and awareness of risk based on signals, however, is crucial: what is the most desirable role of businesses in regard to public safety?

Confusion, Questions and (some) Clarity

“I knew nothing about what to do in a tornado. In fact at my school (work) there were disagreements about what to do among the school leaders. I heard about the same issues from other people in other work places. New England is prepared for a lot of things but not tornadoes.”

Another person was using the local transportation for people with disabilities:

“PVTA driver appeared not aware of tornado in premise. I was in van and tornado went across road by just right after van went thru. We surprise after my stop and people pointing to tornado.”

Protect Yourself!

The proper physical response:

1. get indoors

2. ideally in a basement or bathroom

3. you should already have an emergency kit prepared for each member of your family and pets!

How to get Warnings?

“I feel it would be easier if we receive a special message like “Deaf Emergency and Weather” so that way deaf people can read the word “Deaf” to help people to prepare quickly to save themselves.”

Deaf people compose a population that has no systematic, institutionalized, reliable means of receiving timely and accurate information about an unfolding disaster. Suggestions include using pagers, email or text alert to cell phone, video sign mail through video relay operators, and a call-in number for updates. Few respondents to this survey knew how to sign up with their Town for special alerts (most Towns in western MA do not even offer this service), and others were unsure how to confirm their inclusion in such a system:

“Where would it indicate that I have signed up?” (as one survey respondent asked), is a simple question with a long history:

“Of course we all know that the deaf people are few and far apart in rural Western Mass and the hearing authorities hope and pray that somehow the deafʼs hearing friends would notify them. Sadly many hearing people knew nothing also.”

Read the full article: