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Science into Action: Shepherd on engaging the public

Alan Flurry

The Pew Charitable Trusts ran a great background feature and Q&A this week with Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences Marshall Shepherd, where he explains his flood-related research and the importance of experts interacting with policymakers and the public:

Q: The public isn’t always fully informed about flood risks. How can that change to help people make better decisions?

A: I cannot tell you how many times I have watched, either in person or on social media, people drive through a road that is flooded. Many people exhibit “optimism bias,” meaning they’ll drive through a flooded road or forgo flood insurance and hope for the best, and buy a lottery ticket fully expecting to win. Study after study shows that people are generally bad at assessing risk. We need more visual aids that show people what risk means—for example, a video demonstrating small cars can get swept away from a little as one foot of water because the tires float, or an app depicting how much a house will flood with various rainfall amounts. 

I would like to see flood warnings and messaging be more simplified. The National Weather Service’s Hazard Simplification Program is making progress in these areas. Also, more public campaigns to ensure that people know the difference between a watch or warning is important. I have even floated the prospect of some type of index or scale similar to what we use for tornadoes and hurricanes, respectively. 

Q: As you reflect on the 2017 hurricane season, what can the nation do to be better prepared for the next big flood?

A: One of the biggest takeaways from 2017 is that information is there but may not be reaching people. I wrote a Forbes article days before Hurricane Harvey warning of 40 to 50 inches of rainfall. However, I think people, including policymakers, struggle to grapple with something outside of their level of experience. People in Houston see flooding all of the time, but not like Harvey. This makes it difficult to plan and leads to people saying after the event, “We had no idea it was going to be that bad,” even though there were warnings. I saw this with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico too. It was obvious to forecasters for days that Puerto Rico was going to be significantly impacted. We need to get people and decision-makers to act on forecasts, even though sometimes it may turn out that nothing bad happens. It would be nice to get to a point where someone says, ‘I had to evacuate for a day, but I am happy to do it, because there was risk.’ Flood risks are here to stay, and, frankly, I expect them to increase.

Ongoing, terrific work on several fronts from one of UGA's best.

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