WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Crisis Management and a Tale of Two Cities

Apr 18, 2018

Dr. Timothy Sellnow, a Professor of Strategic Communication at the University of Central Florida, researches topics such as pre-crisis planning.  He said he has spent a lot of time studying communities damaged by flooding and found two cities in North Dakota that offer some lessons.

Sellnow said Grand Forks was devastated by a flood in 1997. “Much of their downtown was destroyed and a number of homes had to be removed – to the point where the city lost a considerable portion of its population,” he said.

Sellnow said the city responded by dedicating itself to a new approach. He said instead of trying to rebuild dikes that were unable to hold back the waters in 1997, community members taxed themselves, built a diversion area for flood waters, set up rules for where homes are allowed to be built, and developed an emergency response plan.

Sellnow said another flood struck five years later but much of the water was diverted, areas that did flood were evacuated quickly, and there was little property damage.

“That’s a very good example of a community that decided to dedicate the resources, time, energy, and personal commitment to change,” he said.

Sellnow said Fargo, which is downriver from Grand Forks, was spared in 1997 because ice jams held back the flood waters and other factors prevented flooding in the city.  He said the community took no action to plan for the possibility of another so-called 500 year flood and, five years later, the city was at it again, putting out sandbags to try holding back flood waters. And three years after that, another large flood struck.

“By this point, the community was exhausted. They had dedicated time and resources and they demanded change. So they began talking about investing in some kind of diversion,” Sellnow said.

“Sadly, they spent millions of dollars on those two other flood fights that could have been dedicated to a diversion had they followed the model that Grand Forks followed.”

Sellnow spoke with Tri States Public Radio while visiting Western Illinois University to present the 28th annual Wayne N. Thompson Lecture hosted by the Department of Communication

Sellnow said communities and organizations that engage in annual emergency drills and simulations are often best prepared when a crisis arises because they learn:

  1. What part of the plan works and what doesn’t work
  2. How well responders work with one another and build familiarity with one another

He also said communities and organizations should designate a spokesperson who can keep the public informed during an emergency.

Sellnow recommends regular updates to emergency plans to account for changes in personnel, phone numbers, etc.  He said emergency plans should be fairly broad and flexible so they can help with responding to the unexpected.  And he said the plans should be made available to the public.

“In the research that I’ve done, I’ve been able to see that when the public knows that we’ve got a plan in place and that we can be protected with that plan, it actually produces a kind of calm – including when the events occur,” Sellnow said.