Hurricane Harvey is testing our ability to communicate natural disaster risks

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Huffington Post Inc.

Since slamming into the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane late Friday, Harvey has dumped at least 9 trillion gallons of rain across the state — enough to fill Utah’s Great Salt Lake twice.

And with Houston already inundated, the rain continues to fall. One meteorologist estimates that by the time the storm subsides it will have dropped a mind-boggling 25 trillion gallons of water across the state.

Certain locations along the Gulf of Mexico are expected to see as much rain in a few short days as is typical in an entire year. To accurately portray the staggering totals, the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its precipitation maps.

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Last year, a study funded by the National Weather Service and NOAA’S Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research looked at how people interpret weather warnings and the risks associated with floods. Among other things, the team of researchers concluded that “people differ in how they react to uncertainty; for some, not having a concrete example of what a risk means can make them uncertain of what the actual impacts might entail and thereby impede their decision on whether to take action.” They also found that “motivation for action came from knowing what was forecast for their specific town, and knowing what neighbors, friends, and family were doing to prepare.”

Jennifer Marlon, an associate research scientist as Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, told HuffPost via email that improvements in technology and forecasting do not always translate into better communication or members of the public taking appropriate action.

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