Interactive radar: Storms moving across North Alabama

Researchers develop virtual reality system to treat severe weather anxiety, phobias

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WHNT) - Just over four years ago on April 27, 2011, Alabama experienced one of its worst tornado outbreaks on record.  In all, 62 tornadoes and 252 deaths were recorded across the state.

Many of the physical scars from that day have begun to heal over time, but the unseen psychological and emotional scars are just as bad -- if not worse -- for some people.

Laura Culp, a business analyst for the University of Alabama's Center for Advanced Public Safety, is one of many Alabamians who suffers from severe weather-related anxiety.  Culp survived the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011.

"My husband and my brother-in-law put a mattress over all of us and laid on the mattress knowing that the storm was about to be here," Culp recounts. "We literally told each other goodbye because we thought we were about to die," she recalls as the roaring sound of the tornado got louder.

Like so many others who also survived the powerful storm, a persistent sense of fear remains with Culp to this day. "I set my alarm every 30 minutes or every hour to get up to check the weather because I just get so nervous -- and that's even if I can fall asleep," she said.

Using technology originally intended for the video game market, researchers are creating a three-dimensional virtual simulation to help people prepare for and react to severe weather.  Dr. Laura Myers, Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety, is one of the lead researchers involved in the project.

"[The virtual reality system] gives [people] the safety and security to experience situations that may assist with things like PTSD," she said.

Myers has devoted countless hours studying how people perceive and respond to disruptive weather, and she says this technology "has the potential to help a lot of different people."

Myers says she has seen "a very elevated" level of anxiety in Alabama, particularly following the consecutive high-impact severe weather events we've had in recent years.  Anxiety can be a big obstacle when it comes to our response to severe weather.

"It does slow down our reaction time; it causes us to make critical mistakes," explains Dr. Amy Traylor, assistant professor with the School of Social Work. Traylor will also play a key role in the continued research behind this project.

Myers and Traylor both emphasized the educational potential a project like this has. "The best way to learn something that we're going to put into action is to learn those skills in the environment where we need to use them," said Traylor.

The system is already very realistic.

"We're using the real siren sound; We're using the actual NOAA weather radio. [We've tried] to create as many conditions that will trigger responses in the person," said Myers.

An Oculus Rift headset is used to display the 3-D world now, but Myers says eventually, the technology may be available in the palms of your hands or in your child's classroom.

Developers are hoping a partnership with Google will aid in increasing the accessibility and reach of this technology.

Google Map for coordinates 33.214023 by -87.539142.

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