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Initiative Helps Rural Amish Communities Become Weather Ready in Jackson, Kentucky

Challenge

When communicating life safety and preparedness messaging, cultural differences need to be considered.  In Amish communities, there is a minimalist lifestyle. They do not typically use electricity and don’t adopt or use the conveniences of modern technology. There are many pockets of Amish communities across the country.

Solution

In sharing preparedness and safety messaging, emergency managers must consider unique ways to initiate an education and public awareness project. A warning coordination meteorologist and an emergency management director teamed up to initiate a project which has become far reaching beyond the bounds of Eastern Kentucky – Weather Awareness for a Rural Nation (WARN). The mission of WARN is to bridge the gap and connect with “off the grid” communities using warnings and awareness to ensure protection of their lives and property.

 “Our goal was to focus on underserved populations and to create more weather-ready communities,” said Jane Marie Wix, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS). “We saw the need following a flood event that claimed the lives of five children residing in a rural Amish community.”

In April 2020, an Amish mother was driving a horse-drawn buggy leaving her home in Bath County, Kentucky and came to a low-water bridge that had water flowing over it. Her five children were inside the buggy, and she was also pregnant at the time. As the buggy began to cross the bridge, it lost traction and flipped into the swollen creek. The mother and unborn baby survived, but after an extensive search-and-rescue, the effort turned to recovery to locate the five missing children.

Local county officials and rescue workers determined this was an unfortunate accident. Jason York, emergency manager for Bath County, spoke at a county meeting said, “We could be doing more. These communities did not have any warning or education. We need to figure out a way to get life and safety information to them.”

He then began doing research for finding information to better serve local Amish communities, including weather safety handouts from the NWS - but found no resources.

Targeting Eastern Kentucky’s Amish population, Wix and Jason York took steps toward providing and increasing awareness about weather safety and education.

“We created a task force of five people and two sectors including Emergency Management and National Weather Service,” said Wix.

The key focus of the NWS sector of the task force is to provide weather education for the Amish communities. Meanwhile, the main objectives or goal of the Emergency Management side of the task force is figuring out ways and accepted technologies to get weather information into Amish communities.

“The first thing we did was research,” said Wix. “We discovered that there are over 350,000 Amish living in the United States, and the population is rapidly growing. Kentucky is currently the eighth largest Amish population. When you see those numbers, you quickly realize you are a small group trying to fill a very large void. But where do we start? We knew barriers existed.”

Barriers included finding ways to convey safety information to a population that doesn’t use cars, electricity, cell phones, internet, or television. Communicating and providing weather information to a community that lives separate from society is a challenge.  The key is learning what is acceptable and what is not. Trying to communicate with and provide weather information for a community that has a desire to live separate from society – learning more about the culture and what is accepted versus what is not. 

“With this in mind, we knew we needed to build partnerships along the way to help us succeed and reach our goals. One of the first partnerships we developed for this project was with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension,” said Wix.

Each county in the state has a dedicated cooperative extension office and extension agent. These offices are heavily used by the Amish community, especially given their focus on agriculture and homemaking. These local extension offices and agents have a greater understanding better beat on how many Amish are in their community, where they are located throughout each county, and in many cases have strong relationships.

“The government, including the NWS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have a ton of weather safety and preparedness materials – but none of them pertain to the Amish lifestyle. They aren’t going to get in a car to escape lightning, they aren’t going to get a cell phone alert about a tornado warning, and they aren’t concerned if the power goes out in the middle of a snowstorm. Instead, the task force had to revamp the way they thought about weather safety and take a more grass-roots approach,” said Wix.

Here are some specific outreach efforts that have occurred to date and continue to expand:

  1. In addition, each extension office has a meeting room which provides a centralized space for the NWS to give presentations and have community members attend.
  2. The WARN task force submits content for a monthly newsletter which concentrates on weather hazards during the year.  In addition, content focuses on weather safety, climate data and upcoming training opportunities. Subscription newsletters by mail are a popular form of communication within the Amish community.
  3. Another gap identified by the task force includes how to get weather information (including alerts) into the communities. The Emergency Management partnered with Midland Weather radio to design the first ever “Amish” weather radio. This weather radio is solar and crank power - with an internal battery, no AM/FM radio option, no other frills other than a flashlight, and a programmable weather radio that can be turned on and off.

All the resources and information that WARN develops are available in a shared WARN Amish Toolkit.

“The more information that is available, the more resources offices have to help build weather-ready communities,” said Wix.

Key Takeaways

In Emergency Management it is imperative to take cultural differences into consideration.For additional information, visit:

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