Adding Risk to the Emergency Management Equation

The USGS' Nathan Wood offers a researcher geographer's perspective on the relationship between risk and emergency management.

by Eric Holdeman / October 19, 2010
Mount St. Helens in May 1980. Photo courtesy of the NOAA. NOAA

Nathan Wood is a research geographer co-located at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Western Geographic Science Center and the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. His research focuses on the use of GIS tools and community-based workshops to characterize and communicate societal vulnerability to natural hazards, with an emphasis on sudden-onset and chronic hazards in the Pacific Northwest. Wood responded to questions about how risk management interfaces with hazards and emergency management.

Q: How exactly did you end up being a vulnerability researcher at the USGS?

A: The majority of USGS researchers are physical scientists. After receiving undergraduate and master’s degrees in coastal geology, I became more interested in how communities are vulnerable to coastal hazards than the physical processes themselves and ended up getting a doctorate in geography. When I was hired 10 years ago, there had been a push to develop a geographic science element within the USGS that would look at the interactions between humans and their environment. In the hazards arena (a primary area of emphasis for the USGS), this meant looking at how communities are vulnerable to natural hazards and at how human actions create or amplify this vulnerability. At first, I noticed some reticence from many physical scientists about the USGS looking at the societal aspects of disasters. However, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters, USGS culture changed a great deal and the role of humans in disasters is better appreciated. Proof of this paradigm shift is a Hazards, Risk and Resilience theme in the bureau’s new 10-year science strategy. To help the nation understand and reduce risks from natural hazards, the USGS is committed to improving its ability to understand and monitor natural hazards, and the vulnerability of communities to these threats. So I hope vulnerability researchers at the USGS become more typical than they are currently.

It seems that Americans are not risk averse when it comes to natural hazards. Why is that?

A colleague of mine in the social sciences once told me that there is a great deal of research that shows that people naturally tend to think they are safe. They know extreme events may happen, but think they’ll be safe and others will be affected. So, to get at-risk individuals to change their behavior, you have to first get them to realize that they are, in fact, at risk.

What risk-messaging techniques work with elected officials and other decision-makers?

Effective risk education includes three things: the potential for an extreme event; how your group is specifically vulnerable if the event were to occur; and what you can do about it now to reduce your risks. Physical scientists will often focus only on the potential for the extreme event. However, discussing the potential for extreme events in isolation may create a feeling that these events and their impacts are inevitable. Effective risk messaging involves discussing uncontrollable events that have controllable consequences. You can’t stop the tsunami, but you have some control over the potential for life loss by implementing education, preparedness and warning programs. The key is to raise expectations for positive outcomes. Once officials realize they have some control in the situation, they are more likely to develop and implement risk-reduction strategies.

Emergency management and risk management are related and complementary fields. Why is it that emergency managers don’t employ risk management more in their work? Would it help them?

I don’t know if the issue is that emergency managers aren’t using risk-management techniques in their work. I think the issue is larger than that of a single individual’s or agency’s efforts. Emergency managers typically focus on the immediate impacts of an event and its aftermath, whereas risk managers focus on the long-term functioning of their community or business. While complementary, the two managers are focusing on different elements. Perhaps the key to connecting the two is an overarching emphasis on achieving community resilience through multiple agencies in a community. I know of some local governments that have disaster resilience committees that meet quarterly as a way to better connect their emergency managers, risk managers, land-use managers and public works directors.

Is there a book or article you recommend to emergency managers that would serve as a primer on understanding risk?

I really like the book At Risk by Ben Wisner, Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon and Ian Davis. The book does a great job of putting risk in a larger societal context. The authors suggest that to manage risk, you need to understand why that risk exists in the first place. By understanding the societal forces and pressures that lead to people living and working in hazard-prone areas, managers may be better able to develop effective risk-management strategies. For example, implementing a policy that requires homeowners to structurally mitigate their homes or relocate is destined to fail if the at-risk population is low income with no other residential options in the community.

How would you suggest addressing low frequency but high-impact events, such as volcanic eruptions?

Low frequency, high-impact events can instill a false sense of security in at-risk populations and elected officials. A long-term education program is a key to combating that complacency. Education efforts should focus on the possibility of future events, how people and institutions are vulnerable to these threats, and what people can do now to manage their risk. The key is to create a culture of safety, instead of moments of reaction. The goal is for people to make risk reduction an everyday occurrence, such as putting on your seat belt before driving, instead of a special event that requires extraordinary energy. Another thing to do is emphasize the creation of continuity plans. It may not be cost-effective to structurally mitigate for a low-probability event, but having a well thought out continuity plan (both for businesses and governments) will ensure that organizations continue to function when these events do occur.

What role does insurance play in risk management? When is insurance the appropriate answer, and when might it not be the best option?

People often incorrectly assume that insurance is the only thing they need to do to manage their risks from hazards. However, insurance is one tool in a risk-management toolbox and is designed to deal with the financial well-being of an individual or company. So insurance is the appropriate answer when the risk-management question relates to long-term financial stability (providing the costs of being insured are lower than the expected benefits over time). Insurance doesn’t address, however, life safety or quality-of-life issues. For example, the ability to collect insurance payouts (typically months after an event) doesn’t mean a lot if you lose your irreplaceable items such as family photos or heirlooms, find yourself homeless or even die from an extreme event.

Scientists sometimes have a challenging time communicating with emergency managers. What advice would you give them?

Speak to the emergency managers from their perspective. Physical scientists get excited talking about the reasons why there are earthquakes, volcanoes and other extreme events. They wish to impart their passion for the natural world. Although some emergency managers share that passion, many do not and simply want to know if an extreme event is possible, how fast it will show up, what areas could be affected, and will they have any warning. Scientists should realize that many managers don’t want an hour-long presentation filled with interesting facts but want a focused, short briefing that gives them actionable information. Scientists should focus on presenting information that enables managers to do their job, and saving the rest for a general-interest talk perhaps at a public library.

More information on Wood’s research can be found at

Platforms & Programs