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SoCJ and SoMAS Faculty Win Federal Grant to Protect Vulnerable Populations from Extreme Weather


Stony Brook School of Communication and Journalism (SoCJ) faculty Christine Gilbert and Ruobing Li, and Brian Colle from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), recently won a grant worth nearly half a million dollars from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to try to find new ways to engage and protect vulnerable populations from extreme weather. 

The researchers will work with vulnerable populations in New York City to try to determine how to improve outreach to these groups to help protect them and, potentially, offer insights to other regions.

Christine Gilbert
SoCJ and SoMAS Assistant Professor Christine Gilbert

“Our traditional methods of data collection, using online surveys, are often not inclusive of the more vulnerable folks among us who bear the brunt of climate change impacts,” said Christine Gilbert, assistant professor of climate communication at the SoCJ and SoMAS. “This grant will allow us to more intentionally survey and learn from people who live in more environmentally vulnerable locations or come from historically marginalized groups.” 

Wildfires and droughts, floods and “storms of the century” are increasingly common around the United States and beyond. Extreme weather events cause millions of dollars of damage and pose significant risks to human health and life, and the toll is getting higher every year. Vulnerable populations — people with lower income levels, less education, linguistic barriers and the elderly, among others — are more likely to feel adverse effects of extreme weather.

Brian Colle
SoMAS Professor Brian Colle is lead investigator of the project.

“There was unfortunately significant loss of life in NYC in these vulnerable communities from heavy rainfall and flooding when tropical storm Ida struck in early September 2021,” said Brian Colle, SoMAS professor, atmospheric sciences division head and the project’s lead investigator. “Our National Weather Service collaborators who issue the storm warnings would benefit by knowing how vulnerable populations within NYC perceive risk, where they obtain their information about impending storms, and ways to improve communication between emergency managers, community leaders, and residents.” 

The Stony Brook researchers will work with partners from NOAA, including forecasters and staff from the NYC National Weather Service office and the NOAA social science team in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Ruobing li
SoCJ Assistant Professor Ruobing Li

“The vulnerable communities have fewer resources, and they may face more enormous challenges when it comes to dealing with extreme weather,” said Ruobing Li, assistant professor of mass communication. “Currently, we don’t know whether they have been receiving extreme weather-related information given that some of them don’t speak English or own smart devices. Therefore, it is imperative that we find out ways to best communicate with the vulnerable communities to help prepare them for extreme weather.”

During the three-year project, the research team will learn how identified vulnerable populations perceive risk and obtain information about weather conditions and forecasts through focus groups, surveys and crowd-sourced data obtained through a smartphone app. They will bring together individuals from these populations and emergency management officials to find ways to improve communication and the flow of information between the different groups through programs offered by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.  

“Extreme weather isn’t going away, and clearly we as a society need to do more to protect the elderly, economically disadvantaged, and others who are most at-risk who live alongside us,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the School of Communication and Journalism and executive director of the Alda Center. “Stony Brook researchers at the SoCJ and SoMAS are focused on helping improve society. We seek to obtain and share data that can be turned quickly and effectively into action. We know that through this kind of work we can do our part to create a more fair, more just, more rational world.”

Their project, “Improving Communication with Highly Vulnerable Societal Groups through Partnerships, Audience Analysis, Crowd-Sourced Information, and Workshops,” is funded through NOAA’s Collaborative Science, Technology, and Applied Research program. 

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