Overcoming Public and Political Challenges for Natural Hazard Risk Investment Decisions

Ross B. Corotis, University of Colorado, Holly Bonstrom, University of Colorado, Keith Porter, University of Colorado


The cost of natural disasters continues to rise around the world, in part because of population growth, urbanization, and the pressures they place on land use. To reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure, especially existing infrastructure, will require that engineers bring more than technical capabilities to bear. Engineers need to know which measures of risk are most meaningful or relevant to decision makers, and then be able to communicate those risks, and the costs and benefits of mitigation, in concise, credible, meaningful terms. A major challenge in developing a plan to retrofit weaker structures is demonstrating a need to the public and its political leaders, who may have difficulty extrapolating personal experiences to low-probability, high-consequence events. Review of recent research and examination of case studies has led to the identification of five key issues that seem central to effective risk and retrofit communication: (1) public risk perception, (2) public participation in hazard mitigation planning, (3) incorporation of community values, (4) incompatibility of political motivation and long-term planning, and (5) finances of risk and return. These issues provide a framework for understanding the challenges to promoting retrofit and for developing communication strategies to overcome these challenges. The resulting risk-communication strategies can be used to improve long-term sustainable policy with recognizable benefits to society. The San Francisco Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS) team is presented as a case study that effectively addresses the issues identified here.


hazards; investment; political issues; social issues; structures; retrofit; risk perception

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