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2013 Boulder, Colo. Flood: Risk Communications in Action

2013 Boulder, Colo. Flood: Risk Communications in Action

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sofi Martinez, Risk Communication and Community Resilience Intern


As floodwaters poured into Boulder, Colo. homes last September, it was crucial that risk communications reached everyone in the area as quickly as possible. Risk communication can be challenging even if targeted audiences are from similar backgrounds and speak the same language. Delivering a message to recent immigrants who may not speak fluent English or know the customs of an area complicates communication and compromises their safety. Here at START, we are working towards better understanding risk communication, specifically communication targeting hard-to-reach groups.

Prior to my internship at START, I did not know what inhibited vulnerable populations from receiving help in disaster situations.  As a Risk Communication and Community Resilience intern, I assisted in refining a survey that explores how risk communications functioned during the recent Boulder flood. I also interviewed flood victims about how they received safety information during the disaster, which helped me to establish an understanding of how to better reach marginalized populations.

The research I am assisting with about the Boulder flood focuses on certain strategies the National Weather Service (NWS) and other government entities used during the disaster to inform residents about the impending flooding. This flood was of record intensity, destroying homes and communities all around the Boulder area. Our survey focuses on the 90-character emergency alerts sent out via mobile devices to warn residents about the flood.

These messages are automatically received by all wireless emergency alert (WEA) capable devices. They differ from regular text messages in that they are no longer than ninety characters and cause mobile devices such as cellphones to make a special tone and vibration that is different from the typical text message notification.

The alert can be particularly efficient in spreading information because cell towers send the message to all WEA-capable devices in the vicinity of the emergency (NWS, 2014). NWS and its federal partners also use news coverage on radio and television stations, as well as desktop applications, to deliver emergency alerts (NWS, 2014).

Even though there are so many outlets for communication today, there still seems to be a significant lag between when warnings are delivered and when residents start to react. According to a Boulder newspaper, Daily Camera, many people were unaware of NWS’s first flash-flood watch in the area. In fact, residents did not tune into the weather until power lines fell and roadways flooded (Brennan & Aguiar, 2013).  

Reaching vulnerable populations requires tailored and unique communication strategies. In certain sections of Boulder, for example, police were knocking on residents’ doors to inform them about the flood. This strategy can be necessary for residents that have minimal access to media or other public informational sources.

However, some undocumented immigrants feared immigration authorities, and would not answer their doors. Distrust of government officials makes these groups especially susceptible to missing information as they may shy away from government officials and avoid asking for help. Because of their legal status, undocumented immigrants were also at risk after the flood as many lost their homes and possessions and were ineligible for most aid programs (Lofholm & Robles, 2013).

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security report describes how WEA messages, if translated into other languages for areas with large immigrant populations, could be useful for disseminating information. Specifically, the emergency alert messages sent out by NWS can serve as a non-threatening way to inform immigrants about disasters, as they do not require immigrants to communicate with government officials in person.  Currently the messages are only in English, causing some populations to dismiss important information (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science, and Technology, 2013).

Colorado has taken several measures to improve disaster communication even before the flood took place. These include having emergency information and a telephone help line available in both English and Spanish (State of Colorado, 2014). Since the flood, they have also forged new relationships with immigrant community leaders in the area that are trusted and well known (Lofholm & Robles, 2013).

However, we still have more work to do. The risk communication team at START is researching ways to continue to improve disaster communication. One of the highlights of START’s communication research for me is that the knowledge gained is actually put into practice by the team through programs such as Training in Risk and Crisis Communication (TRACC). One of the modules of this executive education program focuses specifically on analyzing audiences pre-, during, and post-disaster in addition to how unique audiences, such as immigrants, can be effectively contacted.

This information is crucial to ensuring the safety of all those affected by a disaster and I am excited to learn more about how to assist vulnerable populations during times of crisis by continuing my internship at START.


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This blog represents the opinions of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of START or any office or agency of the United States Government.