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Matt Von Pinnon, Published June 05 2011

Von Pinnon: Natural, social sciences mix to improve flood info

Last Wednesday and Thursday, while floodwaters caused problems along the Missouri and Souris rivers in North Dakota, a first-of-its-kind gathering of public agency officials and volunteers met in Fargo to determine how to better protect people and property from routine flooding in the Red River Valley and Devils Lake region.

Called the Integrated Warning Team Workshop, its mission was to examine how flood information put out by these various agencies is actually used by the public and to try to form a team that can speak with a unified voice to better help the public understand the issues that go into flood forecasting and flood safety.

I was one of three members of the media in attendance at the conference of 60 or so officials (WDAY Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler and KVLY Chief Meteorologist Hutch Johnson were the others).

For me, it was an eye-opening experience.

I had no idea so many public agencies had a hand in flood-related issues, and I work for a newspaper and website that covers flooding year in and year out. There were more than 12 different federal agencies represented, and that’s not even counting state, county and local agencies. For outsiders like me, there was a glossary of acronyms defining each group, but agency people all seemed to know each other by descriptors like DES, HSEM, NCRFC and so on.

It illustrates why such a workshop was needed and why the public is so often confused by flood-related information. Each agency has its own jurisdiction and pecking order within the overall system and, while each strives to serve the public in its own unique way, information put out by each group individually can be mind-numbing and bureaucratic.

The good thing is that these agencies recognize this, and that was the reason for the workshop – to understand and accept that their traditional approaches may not be best for those they serve.

The group also spent a fair amount of time learning about how the study of social sciences and human behavior can be used with their natural sciences work so people get more from the messages sent.

North Dakota State University professor George Youngs put it well during a talk on teambuilding. He summarized some hypotheses forwarded by members earlier in the workshop:

Youngs stressed that these are beliefs that have not been studied but could be to better craft messages that more effectively reach the public during floods.

The workshop illustrates that those who predict floods and try to protect people and property from them are determined to improve.

For me, the effort also illustrates that these scientists believe we’re in for more of the same for years to come.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.