July/August 2001

The Prophetic Urge to Warn People about Dangers That We Know Exist

I, like most scientists who possess insights about the causes of earthquake disasters, have an urgent desire to share hazard and risk insights with people who are potentially in harm's way and with public officials who could implement policies that would reduce vulnerability. I believe that scientists with such understanding have an ethical responsibility to raise awareness in their communities and to provide insights that contribute to reduction of future losses. The importance of such efforts grows every year as expanding populations occupy larger areas in earthquake-prone regions. This discussion explores how we can improve our communications to the policy makers and public and suggests developing an information exchange about how we can accomplish this.

New multidisciplinary technological developments such as FEMA's publicly available consensus-based loss-estimation model, HAZUS, enable us to quantify future earthquake losses regionally in order to assist policy makers and the public to appreciate the extent of their exposure. The HAZUS model employs both earthquake hazard and structural fragility terms to calculate damage ratios and estimate damage costs. As a result, we can more quantitatively estimate risk and present this information to the public. In this discussion, risk is the product of multiplying the consequences of damaging events expressed in dimensions of impact, such as damage costs and secondary economic effects, by the probability of the events occurring during a specified time period. As Earth scientists we no longer need be constrained to only characterizing the hazards in our policy dialogues. We also should collaborate with engineers to make these estimates of future losses as robust as possible. Most importantly, we don't have to wait for the next disaster to stimulate improvements in seismic safety based on characterizations of the extent of future damage. Armed with this powerful capability, we should redouble our communication efforts.

A critique of what has worked and not worked in our earlier communication efforts is also in order. Additionally, we should more fully use the insights that have been developed by risk communication specialists. New developments in information technology provide opportunities to enhance our hazard analyses and the presentation and distribution of our insights. This is an important time both to assess how to improve our hazard and risk communication and to rededicate our commitment to the efforts. We have two challenges in these communications: presenting hazard risk information in an intelligible way to laymen, and making recipients aware of ways that they can significantly reduce their risk.

I present this discussion in the context of my personal experience in efforts to communicate with policy makers and to raise public awareness about earthquake issues. Most of the conclusions I am presenting here are based in California. I could use examples from other localities, but I would prefer starting an exchange of experiences, opinions, and ideas through e-mail dialogue with other scientists throughout the country. At the conclusion of my remarks I offer an address site.

Early in my career, as the State Geologist of New York, I oversaw the state's independent assessments of anticipated ground motions and site effects at half a dozen nuclear power plant locations. I headed the state's representation before the Appeals Board of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the licensing appeal of the NRC's approval of the estimates of potential ground motions associated with the "maximum credible earthquake" at the Indian Point facility, located about 30 miles north of Manhattan. For the last twenty years, as the California State Geologist, I have had the responsibility of overseeing California Division of Mines and Geology (CDMG) critiques of the ground-motion design premises for critical facilities such as the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear plants, the original Auburn Dam proposal near Sacramento, and other important projects such as hospitals and public schools.

On the public awareness side of communications, beginning in the early 1980's, I pioneered the development of earthquake scenarios characterizing damage of future events for emergency-response planning and public education. Although I feel these types of activities can have beneficial results, I am humbled by the awareness of the extent of yet-to-be addressed risk issues compared to the modest accomplishments of all of our efforts to date.

It seems to me that greater progress in safety innovations has been made in fields other than the earthquake area. I believe these successes show that we can make improvements by increasing the effectiveness of our earthquake hazard and risk communications. Dramatic longevity increases are accompanying changes to healthier lifestyles. Greater personal awareness of health hazards is changing the behavior of much of the population. Phenomena such as the decrease in adult smokers, increases in no-smoking regulations, laws requiring automobile seatbelts, and growing demand for airbags all illustrate that increased hazard awareness over time can lead to improvements in personal decision-making and public policies that limit adverse outcomes.

These encouraging examples contrast with some of the existing patterns of dealing with natural hazards where risk management seems to be less effective. For instance, often when they are allowed to, people who have personally experienced extensive losses frequently rebuild on their original sites in flood zones and on wave- and wind-battered coastlines. In this context, it is not too surprising that communications regarding potentially hazardous consequences of the largely inexperienced effects of global warming have not received widespread public acceptance. Commitment to addressing global warming issues is further limited by lack of expert consensus. Ironically, the prescribed remedies call, by necessity, for the broad implementation of policies that require nearly universal compliance in order to be effective.

Communicating Earthquake Risk to Exposed Communities

Earthquake hazard and risk communications face some formidable barriers to being understood and believed by many recipients. Moderate and large damaging earthquakes are relatively rare, high-impact events. Actions in response to receipt of successful hazard and risk messages include both private decisions based on the recipient's perception of risk, his personal aversion to that risk, and public community consensus that loss-reducing regulations and other types of actions are justified to keep the exposure to risk below a specific comfort zone. The upper boundary of the comfort zone is usually referred to as the "level of acceptable risk."

The most important public policy efforts to reduce future earthquake losses in California have come on the heels of disastrous events rather than through the receipt of hazard and risk messages. Our policy makers want to show that they "are doing something" after disasters. Following all extensively damaging earthquakes in California during the last seventy years, changes have been made to the statewide building code requirements in order to correct problems that have been observed in structural performances. For instance, after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, the California Legislature passed the Field Act requiring improvements in building designs for public schools (K-12). The observed effects of the 1971 San Fernando earthquake motivated passage of legislation establishing a state active-fault zoning program to avoid placement of structures over active faults where future ground rupture is expected. Other postevent policies to reduce future losses include higher seismic design standards for new hospitals (San Fernando earthquake), higher seismic design standards for existing hospitals (Northridge earthquake), acceleration of CalTrans' retrofitting of bridges and overpasses (San Fernando and Loma Prieta earthquakes), state zoning of potential liquefaction and earthquake-induced landslide areas to protect new construction (Loma Prieta earthquake), and state-sponsored residential earthquake insurance (Northridge earthquake). The Federal Stafford Act was created to provide postdisaster matching funds to reduce losses from future events. Grants under the Stafford Act were used to strengthen many eligible publicly owned structures after the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes.

How long do the periods of opportunity to make such loss-reduction innovations following damaging earthquakes usually last? Generally, only a few months. How long do they stay on the books? All of the post-1971 San Fernando earthquake actions I mentioned earlier are still in existence. However, current circumstances are disquieting since there are several bills presently being considered in the 2001 California legislative session to dismember or weaken the Field Act, which set up a process to assure the seismic safety of public schools and which has functioned for the last 68 years. There are also a half-dozen bills that would greatly extend the time specified in the post-Northridge earthquake legislation for existing hospitals to upgrade their seismic performance and/or substantially reduce the strengthening requirements. I don't believe we have had such efforts to weaken existing postearthquake legislation in the past. It may reflect the consequences of legislative term limits. A significant portion of the current members of the legislature were not in the body at the time of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

In the 2000 session of the California Legislature, the legislators demonstrated their lack of awareness of seismic safety issues. Despite a record surplus of approximately $12 billion, no significant new efforts to reduce future loss were funded. There was no citizen pressure to allocate state revenues for increased earthquake loss reduction. This circumstance contrasts sharply with significant increases in funding for highway construction and maintenance that were in response to voter frustration with slow commutes. The other big issue was expansion of funding to accommodate public school improvements.

The big issue in the 2001 session of the legislature is, of course, addressing energy costs. These developments are typical of a democratic society. The things that are given significant attention are generally "consumer driven" issues. It is clear that both citizens and public policy makers of the state are unaware of the extent of their exposure to earthquake risk, and consequently they do not have the motivation to invest in loss reduction improvements. In other words, our attempts at risk and hazard communication are not strategically successful. The citizenry will advocate and support policies that advance seismic safety only if they appreciate the extent of their own risk exposure and find it to be above their consensus level of acceptability. Properly used, the newly developed HAZUS loss estimation modeling capability can enable us to justify improvements without waiting for the next disastrous earthquake.

During the "peace times" between significant damaging earthquakes, we endeavor to advise the public about what can be expected in the future and what they can do to reduce future losses. Most of these risk communications can be divided into four categories:

  1. Media events that are arranged to announce new results of investigations. In some cases, the new insights are put in the context of what they mean in terms of hazard but only rarely in terms of risk.
  2. Earthquake information that is provided to encourage citizens to make commitments to their own personal and their community's earthquake preparedness. The publication Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country by Lucy Jones of the USGS is an excellent example of this type of communication for southern California.
  3. Communications that take place between scientists or other technical people and public officials, intended to create an updated and improved understanding of the public exposure to hazard or risk in order to encourage adoption of loss-reduction policies.
  4. Communications that occur between scientists or their proxies and the gatekeepers of funding sources with the hope of increasing support for programs that better define the earthquake hazards so that more resources can be made available to facilitate these efforts.

My point is that these messages are occasional (literally) and uncoordinated, and do not reinforce each other. Most are not strategically intended to prompt loss-reducing actions. To be successful, communications must be interdisciplinary characterizations of risk with suggested means of better managing it.

The citizens receiving our messages, as voters, are the key to any improvements in seismic safety that may be made. Can we improve our communications to remedy this situation? I believe that we can. We do not have to wait for the next disaster! First we must strive to eliminate barriers to the recipient's perception of our messages and then construct our messages so that the recipients are prompted to take action. To assist us, let's take a brief look at some of the insights available from risk communication specialists. Miletti and Sorenson (Communicating Risk to the Public: International Perspectives, 1999, Kluwer, Academic Publishers) recognize six stages of processing of risk messages by recipients: receiving; understanding; believing; personalizing; responding (with a decision); and information seeking (additional information needed to implement the decision). I submit that we do little or no systematic follow-up assessment of how the recipients of our messages process the information we provide and whether or not they act on it. We do not know on which of the six processing stages of our messages we have foundered. We should endeavor to learn by analyzing feedback and apply the lessons to improve our communications.

As mentioned, HAZUS provides a way to develop loss assessments of areas ranging in scope from very local to nationwide. I feel HAZUS is a helpful tool in assisting areas to realize the extent of their vulnerability as a first step in addressing reducing future losses. However, HAZUS can be misused in seeking this purpose. Because the input for a number of parameters can be varied, the resulting divergent estimates could be potentially confusing to the public without some context. A protocol for putting these contrasts into perspective needs to be developed. Perhaps the coordination of the recent release of CDMG and FEMA loss estimates can serve as an example.

Using the HAZUS model, CDMG has developed an average annual expected loss for California ranging from the census tract level to statewide (An Evaluation of Future Earthquake Losses in California, a White Paper by the California Department of Conservation, Division of Mines and Geology). Considering both structural and nonstructural damage as well as associated losses to contents, population income, etc., the dollar value is about $4.7 billion dollars per year. This can be conceptually visualized as an amount equivalent to annually cumulative liens of $150 to $200 dollars against every citizen of the state. The total amount or some large portion of the sum becomes payable upon the occurrence of each disastrous earthquake.

At the same time that CDMG was doing its analysis, FEMA used HAZUS to estimate the average annual earthquake loss for the entire country by aggregating census tract estimates. We coordinated our estimate for California with FEMA. The results are different because CDMG had some refinements in the probabilistic hazard analysis model it employed and the state used a CDMG-developed soils map rather than the single default soil type of HAZUS that FEMA employed nationwide. CDMG and FEMA released the reports with a joint news announcement and media briefing that explained the differences in results. We also systematically explain these differences in other venues and reinforce each other's messages. We plan to expand this communication partnership and include other participants. I recommend that we explore communication partnerships in all of our outreach activities.

Since all hazard and risk estimates have uncertainties, we need to think through the best ways to express them to the public and to policy makers in responsible ways that do not negate the significance of our conclusions.

I wish to call your attention to the Western States Seismic Policy Council (WSSPC) Annual Meeting 21-24 October 2001 in Sacramento, California. The theme of the meeting, which will be addressed in a series of discussion sessions, is "Risk Communication." The membership of WSSPC consists of the State Geologists and the State Emergency Managers of thirteen Western states. WSSPC is sponsored by FEMA with supplementary support from the USGS and other sources. We have found this association to be a remarkable way of exchanging insights on seismic issues. A field trip will visit the Napa region on 21 October to review damaged and felt intensity patterns of the 2 September 2000 earthquake. You are all invited to participate in the dialogue at the annual meeting. Please check out the WSSPC Web site at http://www.wsspc.org.

I would like to begin an e-mail chat session on hazard and risk communication experiences. Please share your comments, conclusions, and ideas at jdavis@consrv.ca.gov. I suggest that we address answers to the following questions:

  • How can we better influence voters and elected officials to address seismic safety issues?
  • How can we, as Earth scientists, best collaborate with other disciplines such as engineering to provide convincing understanding of hazards and risk, and practical advice on how to limit and reduce future earthquake losses?
  • How can we systematically appraise the success of our messages and identify ways to improve them?
  • How can we better share our successful and unsuccessful experiences in risk communication and the lessons that we have learned from our efforts?

Dr. James F. Davis
California State Geologist
Department of Conservation
Division of Mines and Geology

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by e-mail or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 23 August 2001