Dennis Mileti passed away, but he left us a legacy of effective risk communication

By Lilia Yumagulova

Dennis Mileti, a luminary in the field of hazards and disaster research, passed away on January 30, 2021, from Covid-19 complications. He was 75 years old.

Dennis Mileti was the Director Emeritus of the Natural Hazards Center.  He authored over 100 publications focusing on the societal aspects of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery for hazards and disasters. His book, Disasters by Design, published in 1999, involved over 130 experts in assessing knowledge, research, and policy needs for hazards in the U.S. He was co-founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Natural Hazards Review, an interdisciplinary all-hazards journal devoted to bringing together the natural and social sciences, engineering, and policy communities.

“Dennis was a mentor, friend, colleague, and inspiration to all who met him, heard him speak, or were fortunate enough to know him,” said the Natural Hazards Center’s current Director Lori Peek, who is also Mileti’s former student. “He could light up an entire room with his powerful words and insights.”

Shannon Saunders, an emergency management professional reflected on this loss to the emergency management community: “Dr. Mileti’s work impacted mine in every way. Disasters by Design is still the first book I recommend when someone tells me they want to know more about emergency management. His idea of a sociological approach to studying the art and science of disasters is what drew me into the field. I carry the thoughts of human impacts in disasters through all my work (or at least I try to). Our conversation with Dr. Mileti in Toronto is still one of the most profound moments in my career.”

As shared by the Natural Hazards Center, Mileti is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading risk communication scholars. He was an advocate of creating messages and warnings that encouraged people to prepare for and respond appropriately to disaster risks. He knew that moving this research into action could save lives. Visit this tribute page to celebrate the life and contributions of Dr. Dennis Mileti.

I connected with Dennis a few years ago for an interview for HazNet. We are reprinting it here to honour his foundational work.


Lily: You’ve been in this business for many years and you’ve worked with some of the giants. If you were to boil down everything that we know about preparedness into a couple of paragraphs, what would you like everyone to know?

Dennis: In reference to individuals and the family, here’s what I’d say if I were summing it up.

Number 1: The single most important influential thing that gets human beings to prepare for disasters is experiencing a disaster. And what that means is, if you give San Francisco a big earthquake, after the earthquake is over and after the horse is out of the barn, people will prepare like crazy.

However, what I would say to those who would wish to increase public preparedness is to be ready to take full advantage of that and be ready to steer the public in the right direction when you have their attention after an earthquake. And quite frankly, I don’t know anyone in this nation or any other that does that. And so the time to get people interested in earthquake insurance is after the earthquake not before.

Number 2: Short of experiencing an earthquake, when you’re talking to people to be prepared in general, to mitigate their homes more extensively etc. The most influential vehicle for influencing human behaviour is totally ignored by FEMA and the Red Cross and Offices of Emergency Services, [and] Association of Floodplain Managers, etc. The single most influential spokesperson to motivate the public to prepare are other people in their life. Their friends, their relatives, and neighbours. And this is not unique to preparedness, although the data is in that it is. How human beings are wired, how we’re made up genetically, is that we are copy cats or “monkey see, monkey do.” That’s how motivation spreads.

The thing to get going is to get people who have taken steps to mitigate or prepare for a natural disaster to open up their mouths and tell their next-door neighbour and friends [about] steps they took. For example, I live in a very earthquake vulnerable part of the country and after I have friends over for dinner I typically walk them over to a statue on a table in my living room and say, “Try shaking that statue.” They try shaking the statue and it doesn’t move. Then I giggle and say, “Try shaking the box it’s on,” and they try shaking the box, and it doesn’t move. Then I say “Try shaking the table that the box is on,” they try shaking it and it doesn’t move. Then they look at me like, “Why is everything glued down?”

And that’s how I can protect the lives of people I live with and protect them from injuries in the event of an earthquake. And I know that when they’re driving home, the wife pokes the husband and says, “When are we going to glue things down?” That’s how you do it.

It’s not government. Government isn’t the best spokesperson to motivate preparedness, it’s the people you know and love, admire, trust, and are a part of their everyday life. And so, given that, do you know of any public efforts to motivate people who have already prepared to share with and tell their friends and relatives what they have done? That is the most productive way to do it, so why are we continuing to do it in other ways, rather than the most productive way? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The bottom line is that most public agencies’ public education efforts [are] really not about motivating the public, what [they’re] really about is having them look good. And to look like they’re doing their jobs. And so that’s Number Two: getting human beings to share what they’ve done. And so, you need to invent a repetitive message campaign.

Number 3: If you want to motivate the public to prepare, it needs to be repetitively messaged if you want to break through the malaise of everyday life when the average human being has 1000 problems to worry about.  They’re probably going to be worried about getting clean clothes on their families’ back, putting a dinner down, and what dress to wear to dinner, before they ever get ready for something they don’t believe is ever going to happen to them. Now the way you get to people, the way you get into the human mind is repetitive messaging.

Let me ask you a question. How old were you when you could remember hearing your first ad for Coca- Cola? And when was the last time you heard an advertisement for Coca-Cola? And how many did you hear in between the years? Coca-Cola knows we need a repetitive message while agencies that are trying to encourage preparedness don’t. You’ve got to market it. If you want the public to prepare you can’t put on a big extravaganza event one day a year and expect that anybody is going to do anything. You’ve got to remind them to do it, daily. And so, you need to invent a repetitive message campaign.

Now listen to this: you’re not the only one if you’re engaged in motivating the public to prepare that’s talking to the public. So, let’s just say for flood hazard mitigation let’s pick a town like Boulder, Colorado. You have the NOAA, the State, the Red Cross, and local emergency management talking to them. There are many different spokespersons. They need to be saying the same thing, otherwise it confuses people and people think nobody knows exactly what they should or shouldn’t do. They also have their friends talking to them and so what needs to happen is you need to have the message coordinated and so the Red Cross, FEMA, the city, the county, state, etc. are all saying the same thing. And that means you need to brand the message, not the messenger. And that involves organizations giving up their favourite personal emergency preparedness activities and coordinating with each other. And that’s very difficult to do.


Number 1: Get people that have already prepared talking to their friends and relatives, sharing what they’ve done, and that will accomplish more than anyone else on the planet can do.

Number 2: Get different groups interested in getting the public to increase their preparedness to disseminate the same message rather than their own unique message.

Number 3: The message has to be repeated frequently, not infrequently, just like advertising. Why would Coca-Cola keep spending money on advertising if they’ve been around 100 years? Because they know the minute they stop advertising, people will forget all about them. You’re dealing with human beings. These three points would enhance preparedness levels. Even the most you could accomplish isn’t as much as you would ideally want: most human beings aren’t going to prepare no matter what.