Communicating risk and risk understanding to the public

March 2007 » Columns
Attention civil engineers: Communicating risk and risk understanding to the public is still a challenge for our profession. At last month's Geo-Denver's plenary session, "Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Levees: what went wrong & why?", David E. Daniel, Ph.D., P.E., president of the University of Texas, Dallas, and chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers' External Review Panel, highlighted that those most affected in New Orleans' recent catastrophes did not fully understand the impact a 120-mph+ hurricane with an increased water surge would have on their residences and infrastructure. Most were not knowledgeable about the historical swamp conditions or the potential impacts that living in the Gulf of Mexico hurricane belt could have on their lives. Further, their understanding of risk terminology, such as probability of exceedance and 100-year level of protection, was limited to a detached idea that the natural hazards will likely not happen during their lifetimes. This does-not-affect-me attitude likely led to false senses of security, low-cost mentality, and complacency about infrequent, extreme events. The life and financial risks associated with the same were not properly evaluated by many who lost property and, tragically, loved ones. How do we communicate risk and risk understanding to the public?
Cathy Baz&aacute
Attention civil engineers: Communicating risk and risk understanding to the public is still a challenge for our profession.

At last month's Geo-Denver's plenary session, "Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Levees: what went wrong & why?", David E. Daniel, Ph.D., P.E., president of the University of Texas, Dallas, and chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers' External Review Panel, highlighted that those most affected in New Orleans' recent catastrophes did not fully understand the impact a 120-mph+ hurricane with an increased water surge would have on their residences and infrastructure. Most were not knowledgeable about the historical swamp conditions or the potential impacts that living in the Gulf of Mexico hurricane belt could have on their lives. Further, their understanding of risk terminology, such as probability of exceedance and 100-year level of protection, was limited to a detached idea that the natural hazards will likely not happen during their lifetimes. This does-not-affect-me attitude likely led to false senses of security, low-cost mentality, and complacency about infrequent, extreme events. The life and financial risks associated with the same were not properly evaluated by many who lost property and, tragically, loved ones.

How do we communicate risk and risk understanding to the public? In my opinion, we communicate it through face-to-face risk education. If a resident hears about and sees the implications of having property in a floodplain, swamp, earthquake, mine subsidence area, or similar risk area, it is easier to convey the reasons to consider insurance, evacuation plans, and contacting politicians to provide accountability on the construction, adherence, and maintenance of safety measures.

My personal campaign consists of live pontification on hazards, risks, and exposures. This is mostly through presentations at technical fairs, school awareness seminars, or when friends and friends of friends ask me to give them "my opinion" (free consultation?) on their slipping backyard hills, cracking foundations, or future French drains, roofs, and pool installations. I go over some fundamental interactions between natural forces such as wind, water, ice, soil, and earthquakes with their various constructions. Also, I cover some definitions on hazards, risks, exposure, and basic probabilistic terminology. Above all, I highlight safety first. My handy list of experts in various fields is my safety blanket in case I don't know an answer.

There are entire symposiums, conferences, and courses that train professionals on effective communication. I think that engineers need to gain this skill to effect change from the public. Public understanding of risk and uncertainties could make important differences in our infrastructure and the way U.S. lawmakers relate to U.S. engineers. People directly affected by potential natural and man-made hazards and risks should be clamoring to their public officials and politicians for accountability, budgets, and risk-based approaches. At the very least, the public should demand more information to make educated, conscious choices for their residences, infrastructure, and their technical and political leaders.

What are your thoughts on risk communication and understanding?

Send your comments to civilconnection@cenews.com.

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