BY KARLA LOPEZ
Karla Lopez is a master’s student in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. The NOAA Center for Earth System Sciences and Remote Sensing Technologies — with the NOAA Office for Coastal Management, the NOAA Water Initiative, and Sea Grant — supported her research internship last year.
One of the many challenges facing people who work in coastal management is how to discuss resilience with underserved communities. Existing resilience programs often fall short in their efforts to fully engage these populations.
This is a potential problem, because underserved and underrepresented communities are often the most vulnerable to coastal hazards. Last year, I did an internship with the NOAA Office for Coastal Management and conducted a review of the scientific literature on barriers and approaches to risk communication.
Five specific communities served as sites, due to their exposure to sea level rise and their strong connection with NOAA through the Sea Grant Program: East Biloxi, Mississippi; Bayou la Batre, Alabama; Wilmington and New Bern, North Carolina; and Mōʻiliʻili, Hawaiʻi.
In my search, it quickly became apparent that there is nothing easy or cookie-cutter about risk communications. Good risk communication takes determination, a strong “stick-with-it” approach, and the ability to really listen and implement what you hear. But there are additional challenges with underserved populations, which consequently call for different approaches.
These best practices emerged from the research:
• Invest time getting to know the community. It is not the responsibility of the community to educate you on their history. Do a search in the library, look for online resources, or even attend town hall meetings to learn about their history, past relationships and approaches, their values and concerns.
• Engage and reach out to stakeholders. It’s important to go where the underserved community is located and to identify the leaders who can help bring that community together to meet.
• Underserved communities have a history of being disappointed with undelivered promises, so honesty is a key element. When you don’t know something, let them know. And if the answer or outcome is not going to be popular, say it anyway. Finding the right messenger (preferably someone from inside the community) can improve effectiveness. Approaching the public without a relationship or a connection can do more harm than good.
• Empower the community. A recurring problem is the lack of engagement of the underserved population in the decision-making process and in local politics. Underserved communities are their own best experts; they know their land and the problems affecting them. They must be part of the solution. Celebrate their strengths and contributions to the effort.
• Establish trust with a long-term investment. Lack of trust toward government agencies may be a barrier, and forging this trust won’t be easy to achieve. Build it by partnering with local organizations and by identifying community leaders who are willing to help and unite everyone. When it comes to helping their community, these leaders are typically all in.
• Evaluate the results. Let other people know what has worked and what has not. Future approaches depend on this information.
Each community is different and will behave differently. The main goal of this report is to help NOAA practitioners, funders, and staff to take a first step towards establishing a conversation and relationship with underserved communities at high risk from chronic sea level rise.
I strongly believe that our main job as scientists, specialists, and community members should be helping others and improving their quality of life. Although I don’t live near a coast, as a Latina, I am very aware of the problems that exist within my community. After all the events that happened in 2020, I am only more grateful to have chosen this project.
It goes without saying that all of this work has been made possible because of my NOAA-CESSRST fellowship. It connected me with a great group of people who made me part of this project.
Read Karla Lopez’s full report
“Enhanced Engagement and Risk Communication for Underserved Communities: Research Findings and Emerging Best Practices”