Published: Feb. 19, 2021

Former director of CU Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center was two days away from receiving first vaccine for COVID-19

Dennis Mileti, a world-renowned expert on disaster communication, professor emeritus of sociology and former director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, has died. 

Mileti succumbed to complications from COVID-19 on Jan. 31, 2021, two days before he was scheduled to get his first vaccine. He was 75.

Mileti was leader in the field of hazards and disaster research and gained national prominence with the publication of Disasters by Design, a comprehensive assessment of natural-hazards research that established a framework for sustainable hazard mitigation in the United States. 

Dennis Mileti

At the top of the page: A Covid-19 memorial is lighted at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2021. Above: Dennis Mileti

Mileti was also an expert on risk communication. He advocated for creating messages and warnings that encouraged people to prepare for and respond appropriately to disaster risks. He argued that translating this research into action could save lives.

His words were prophetic. In an interview published in March 2020 in The Washington Post, Mileti warned of the consequences of fuzzy public warnings, inconsistent messages and outright falsehoods: 

“This might be the largest public information mess I’ve ever witnessed,” he said then, adding: “It just breaks my heart. We know how to do emergency planning better than anyone on Earth, and it’s not there.”

In another excerpt from that interview, Mileti said: “We have people saying, ‘It (the pandemic) will be over soon!’ and other people saying, ‘It could be months.’ … That gives the public the ability to pick the answer they like, which is the No. 1 no-no in public messaging.”

Colleagues at CU Boulder and elsewhere remembered him as trailblazing, wise and compelling.

“Dennis was a mentor, friend, colleague and inspiration to all who met him, heard him speak, or were fortunate enough to know him,” said Lori Peek, who now directs the Natural Hazards Center

“He could light up an entire room with his powerful words and insights.”

Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Whywrote that Mileti did serious quantitative research but also knew how to talk so people would listen. 

“He understood that emotion, social networks and group identity matter more than most things in disaster planning,” Ripley stated. “He also knew that people, being human and complicated, would need to tailor their plans to their personal needs.”

Jim Schwab, a consultant who spent three decades with the American Planning Association, recalled a lecture during which Mileti asked how many conference attendees had flown there. Most raised their hands. 

Schwab recalls Mileti exclaiming: “What? Are you crazy? Don't you know airplanes can crash?” 

Schwab added: “Of course, we all knew that, and he knew that we knew that, too. But it was his way of getting inside your head to think through how we communicate risk. He wanted to take what could seem complicated and show us how we could help alter people's perceptions in meaningful ways.”

Walter Peacock, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University who did graduate study with Mileti, praised Mileti’s candor. “He would be honest, so very honest, if you asked for his opinion, but never in a hurtful way.”

Peacock also characterized Mileti’s death as “senseless and unnecessary.”

He wanted to take what could seem complicated and show us how we could help alter people's perceptions in meaningful ways.​"

“A major part of his work was about how we can and should effectively communicate warning and enhance understanding and compliance by the public,” Peacock stated. 

“And seemingly, everything that has happened over this last year was wrong—it all ran completely counter to what Dennis's work would suggest. And now Dennis and so many others are not with us.”

Mileti earned his PhD in sociology in 1975 at CU Boulder, where he studied under Natural Hazards Center founder Gilbert F. White, who won the National Medal of Science in 2000 and was known as the “father of floodplain management.” 

Mileti returned to CU Boulder in 1994 to become the third director of the Natural Hazards Center. 

During his tenure here, which ended in 2003, he worked to advance research on the societal aspects of hazards and disasters and to support the next generation of researchers and practitioners.