By Lisa Wade, Riverside Water Resources Engineer
I spent Thursday at the Colorado Flood Forum hosted by Colorado State University and the Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers. It was an interesting and informative day that gave me another opportunity to appreciate the hardworking and caring people who work in the water world in CO.
A big portion of the day was devoted to communication issues. How can floodplain managers and emergency managers best communicate with the public about flood risk? Several speakers mentioned that the public commonly misunderstands phrases such as “100-year event” and “100-year floodplain,” yet those phrases remain in widespread use.
When a flood occurs, communication is all the more critical. Speakers from the National Weather Service and the Colorado Water Conservation Board described how people become immune to alert language over time, and how hard it is to convey a sense of risk unless a flood event has occurred in recent memory. Before the September 2013 floods, it had been 13 years since CO received a disaster declaration for flooding.
A speaker from Slate Communications polled the audience and found that ~ 90% of the attendees were engineers (including myself!). One can infer that we may not be the best people to craft messages that translate technical information into action.
Whether you agree with his politics or not, Frank Luntz has made a compelling case that language is a powerful tool to influence public opinion and action. I was driving home a few weeks ago and heard an interesting story about a report released by the Colorado Forest Service that finds that more planning and mitigation is needed by residents who live in the wildland-urban interface.
The wildland-urban interface?! I was struck by that phrase. It’s a poetic means of describing proximity to a natural hazard. Doesn’t it effectively convey that a person or thing located at that interface is at risk? Isn’t that phrase more compelling and picturesque than “100-year floodplain” or “special flood hazard area”? A similar phrase in floodplain management could be the key to conveying risk, encouraging folks to buy flood insurance, or to think twice before living in the floodplain.
I don’t know what that magic phrase is. The best I can come up with is urban-river corridor. (There’s a reason I’m an engineer.) But, the more we work with communications and public information officials, the better our message will be understood by the public, and that seems just as important as the technical work that we love doing: modeling floods and mapping inundated areas.
How does your organization communicate risk? Do you have a good phrase that we should be using? If so, leave me a comment!