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From Risk to Communication to Action: Enabling Institutions to Manage Storm Surge Risks

In November 2013, Tacloban City was struck by a record magnitude storm surge dealt by Typhoon Haiyan. Despite the weather agency's accurate storm surge prediction, thousands lost their lives. The project evolved in response to the acute need for better communication practices linking the national agencies to local governments and the public. The goal of the project is to identify improved strategies for crafting and communicating risk messages, to develop this into new practices, and to ensure that communities need never experience what befell Tacloban during Haiyan.

Community Early Warning System, Barangay Salcedo, Samar  (Center for Disaster Preparedness field site).

An evaluation of the experience of Typhoon Haiyan revealed that risk communication practices were partly at fault. Messages from the national weather agency regarding Haiyan's storm surge were perceived as routine/technical and did not elicit appropriate action; moreover, government staff were hesitant to interpret technical bulletins into more understandable form.

Moreover, a survey was conducted to test whether more narrative-like, as opposed to technical, messages would be more effective. Conducted among residents who chose not to evacuate during Haiyan, the survey indicates significantly improved responses to the narrative model. A toolkit for risk communication was constructed, assembling insights from the various studies and the literature into improved practices for message construction and dissemination.

Field Interviews with Community Leaders (Eastern Samar, Philippines, July, 2016).  In photo: Project team members Paolo Valenzuela and Maria Fellizar-Cagay.

The project team combined insights learned from evaluating the experience of Typhoon Haiyan, lessons from the literature on risk and hazard communication, and field surveys, to construct guidelines for constructing hazard warning messages. Two academic institutions, New York University and the University of the Philippines, worked with two Philippine NGOs, the Center for Disaster Preparedness and the Climate Change Adaptation Advocacy Cooperative, to integrate lessons from research and the field. In the first half of 2016, the research teams studied different bodies of knowledge related to communicating storm-related hazards and constructed a trial approach involving narrative-like messages.

Focus Group in Lawaan, Samar (July, 2016).

This was tested and validated in the field from May to June, 2016. Expert and community workshops were then held in July and August, 2016, to test the team's evolving guidelines against the experience of different stakeholders. The project also provided insights into agency processes, the use of maps, and community engagement. The first version of the communication toolkit was prepared by December, 2016.

Preparation of the toolkit was the foremost outcome of Phase I of the two-year project. Phase II, which has now been initiated, will involve translating the communication guidelines into workshops that will be tested and implemented in the Philippines and Bangladesh. The workshops will be fashioned into learning modules that different groups and agencies can access through an online portal that the project team is creating. The module will be translated into a lesson plan at the primary or secondary school levels. The long-term vision is to use the online portal to develop a virtual community of practice for exchanging knowledge and program designs. Through the NGOs partnering in the project, the workshops will be scaled up and, ideally, institutionalized in Bangladesh and the Philippines and, if successful, in other countries as well.

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