Study tests how people perceive hurricanes

UF researchers put participants inside hurricane condition simulators

By Paul Giorgio - Producer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - People have a tendency to over-predict wind speeds associated with hurricanes according to research being conducted at the University of Florida.

Instead of putting building materials inside their hurricane simulator researchers asked people to step inside. 

Then engineers fired winds as high as 60 miles per hour as people held on for the ride. Seventy-six participants got a first hand experience with not only wind, but also water and flooding conditions similar to what happens in a hurricane.

The experiment was designed by Forrest Masters, Ph.D., an assistant professor of civil and coastal engineering at Florida.

Masters has been conducting field research for more than a decade during and after strong storms.

"You get to interact with a lot of different people who have been affected by the storm and from talking with them I really got a strong sense that people tend to over predict what the wind speeds were at landfall," said Masters.

To test his theory he teamed with Gregory Webster, an associate professor who specializes in social psychology at Florida. 

Together they merged social science and engineering science to record how people perceive weather conditions.

"What we found in the study was that people tend to over predict how much wind they were experiencing. So when people were subjected to 60 mph winds they actually felt that they were 75 mph," said Masters.

The difference between the wind speeds is the difference between a category on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, which classifies hurricanes. 

The researchers said the data is important because it helps explain how people calibrate their experience with their decision making.

"When people over predict, one negative outcome of that is the next time a storm happens they think they were in a wind event that is actually stronger than it really was. That can give people a false confidence in terms of what they can withstand or their home can withstand. It could affect decisions about evacuating or making your home stronger and that carries a significant implication," said Masters.

They hope to be able to give emergency managers, meteorologists and broadcasters better ways to communicate the risk of a storm as it approaches by giving more tangible examples of how conditions will affect people.

"It would be nice if we could come up with some kind of metric for wind speeds or water speeds that we could communicate that in a kind of real world way. Such as a wind of a certain speed is strong enough to say knock down a person weighing a certain amount," said Webster. 

They also found that people with more hurricane experience were able to gauge the wind speed more accurately.  They plan to continue the study to try to determine how much people's past experience with storms impacts how well they prepare.

Copyright 2012 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.