Risk Communication Starts with the Right Questions

A few weeks ago, Pat Skinner, Steve Cain and I attended the fifth National Floodproofing Conference and Exposition. The meeting was a new venue for me, so I learned a lot about the floodproofing world from engineers’ perspectives. “How do we better communicate the risk to flooding?” was a recurring theme.  Most of the conference audience was comprised of US Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, private industry, city engineers, and a sprinkling of university faculty. Steve, Pat and I were the only Extension representatives.

For those of us in Extension, I think “how do we better communicate ______?” is a perennial question. The answer may lie in first understanding what our specific audiences know about the topic and how that pertains to them.

A few questions you might ask your homeowner/rental audiences:

  • Have you ever experienced a flood? If yes, you might then ask: What happened? Viewing one or more of these flood risk scenarios may be useful in starting or continuing the discussion.
  • Do you know where your property lies on the floodplain map? You can access flood plain maps and learn how to read them from Flooding & Flood Risks: Understanding Flood Maps. These maps are for rating flood insurance; you can learn a lot about flood risk by visiting the local floodplain manager or public works department.
  • Do you know what your community officials have done or are planning to do to protect the community from flooding? Check with the public works department to learn about community drainage improvements and stormwater management. You can also check with city/county/parish government to learn how flooding is accounted for in zoning and land development policies.
  • How do you fit in the hazard mitigation plan (HMP)? These plans are usually housed with the local Emergency Management Agency.  A hazard mitigation plan must be in place and approved through the state EMA in order for communities to qualify for hazard mitigation grants from the state or federal government.  Check with EMA to learn more about flood mitigation plans in your area.
  • Do you know what you can do to protect your home and property from flooding? The EDEN resource catalog (“flood mitigation” search) includes videos and fact sheets from LSU on preventing flood damage. These include information on elevating buildings, raising appliances and utilities, and construction finishing materials that water won’t hurt. The eXtension Floods community also provides relevant videos and articles.
  • Do you have a flood disaster plan for your family? Developing a family disaster plan is an action everyone should take. It is not difficult, but it helps to know what should be included in such a plan. The ready.gov site includes information homeowners can use to build their disaster plans. The NOAA Hurricane Preparedness site helps visitors understand what they should include to be prepared for hurricane storm surge, flooding and wind. Be sure to check out the Inland Flooding page. The EDEN delegate-produced Family Preparedness course is available for online or face-to-face training.

Regardless of location, your counties/parishes are at risk of flooding. Understanding that is the first step in taking responsibility for protecting lives and homes from flood.

Labor Day — Thank You

Since 1882, Labor Day has marked the beginning of September. It is a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of the country. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated in New York City on Tuesday, September 15, 1882 by the Central Labor Union. In 1894, following the example of 31 states, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year Labor Day in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Among those recognized today are firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police, and other first responders. Many are working emergencies and disasters as you read this. They may be responding to small-scale emergencies or large-scale disasters such as the ongoing fires in Texas or Tropical Storm/Depression Lee and Hurricane Katia. FEMA and sister agencies have had a busy 2011 so far. According to a September 4 AP story, “So far in 2011, the U.S. has had a record 10 weather catastrophes costing more than a billion dollars [each]; five separate tornado outbreaks, two different major river floods, a drought, a blizzard and a hurricane.” Not to mention an earthquake or two, drought and fire.

While Extension and EDEN delegates are not first responders in the sense that firefighters, police and EMTs are, we are there in the aftermath of disaster, working to provide needed education and information to the disaster victims. For some great examples, check out the EDEN website’s topic pages on tornado, wildfire, hurricane, and tsunami. Before disaster strikes, EDEN delegates are incorporating disaster preparedness and mitigation messages in their everyday education work.

Thank you to those who have provided disaster victims with timely information and education; to those who have responded to requests from colleagues for specific information; and thanks to everyone who provides disaster education in times of calm.

Give yourself a pat on the back — and keep up the good work!

The Network

The beauty of EDEN lies in its networking capability. When there’s a need expressed by a delegate, whether it’s for content for teaching 4-Hers about disaster preparedness, for Spanish-language recovery documents, or something in between, colleagues in the land-grant and sea grant systems respond with ideas, resources, and contacts.  In general, requests are relayed through the EDEN list serv and responses are sent directly to the delegate who asked the question. This can lead to updates to the EDEN resource catalog, new contacts, discussions about identified education gaps, and other collegial activities.

In some instances, a third party serves to facilitate the question-and-answer correspondence, relaying the consolidated information to the inquiring delegate and then sharing it with the rest of the organization. This facilitated response is especially helpful when a disaster strikes and the network goes into high gear. Last spring, we added a more formal system that allows us to better track needs and actions following a disaster.

The Response Notes system was first used following spring 2010 tornadoes in the southeast and has continued to provide a means for EDEN to capture the needs and actions of a state during a disaster. To date, 65 response notes have been submitted, 55 of which have been submitted since January. These response notes are more “rough-draft reporting” than polished document, but the content is valuable as-is.  What happens to that information?

Once a response note is submitted, it is reviewed to see if there is a need for resources. However, the request for assistance can also be sent via e-mail. Following the Joplin, MO tornado, a need for Spanish-language resources was identified. That need was relayed to delegates using the EDEN list serv. Within two hours of the request, several resources were identified and relayed to Bev Maltsberger – and then linked on our Tornado Topic Page (Resources Collected).

While the content remains in the EDEN Intranet, it is also forwarded to our NIFA liaison, Bill Hoffman. Dr. Hoffman uses the notes, which closely mirror the format of the USDA Incident SITREP/SPOT report form, to inform his updates to the USDA Secretary’s office. The result has been increased visibility for EDEN (and cooperative extension in general) at top federal levels.

The moral of this story?  The “network” part of our name is real and it is effective—use it!