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Dennis Mileti, SCEC Advisor and Friend, Dies at 75

Dr. Dennis Mileti was the former Director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a SCEC Advisory Council Member for terms spanning 13 years, a key supporter of our education and outreach activities and a mentor of my professional development since I began at SCEC in 1996. Sadly, Dennis succumbed from complications of COVID-19 at the end of January.

Dennis received a Master’s degree from California State University in Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1975, where he contributed to the first Assessment of Research on Natural Hazards. He was the director of the Natural Hazards Center at Boulder and a professor in the Department of Sociology from 1994 to 2003, studying the societal aspects of both natural hazards and man-made disasters. During his tenure he led the second assessment of natural hazards research, published as Disasters by Design (Mileti, 1993); this work provided a framework for sustainable hazard mitigation in the United States and has been used to augment emergency management training.

Earthquakes were a key focus of his career, particularly public risk communication of warnings and the factors that lead to preparedness behaviors. He authored an article with Joanne Nigg that catalogued major conclusions of research on earthquakes and human behavior in the first issue of EERI’s Earthquake Spectra (Mileti and Nigg, 1984), and would continue to maintain an annotated bibliography of similar research for many years. He studied the public messaging response after the 1983 Coalinga and 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakes in California (Mileti, 1993), which led to key advice for the publication of “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country” by Dr. Lucy Jones, which SCEC published in 1995 following the Northridge earthquake. This booklet became so popular that when I started at SCEC in 1996, much of my day was spent shipping boxes of the booklet to organizations throughout Southern California.  

He also studied the “Causal Sequence of Risk Communication in the Parkfield Earthquake Prediction Experiment” (Mileti and Fitzpatrick, 1992); which he summarized in his annotated bibliography as follows:

The more consistency with which a warning message is delivered, and/or if the message comes from a familiar source, the more likely the receiver is to believe it and/or respond to it... A person is more likely to personalize a warning message if they observe others preparing for the disaster...The more specific a warning message is, the more likely the public is to respond to it. The more searching for information a person does, the more likely they are to respond to a warning message. If a person receives social cues about a disaster, they are more likely to respond to a warning message. 

These key aspects of risk communication were what Dennis would share with our community in many settings.  As a founding member of the SCEC Advisory Council (1991-2001, and 2007-2009), he guided the approach of our education and outreach programs.  I first met Dennis in October 1996, when he spoke at a SCEC-organized conference that brought together scientists, engineers, and government officials to discuss key research needs for the City of Los Angeles.  He was both charismatic and confrontational, urging the attendees to take real action.  After a few years of guidance for our work, he told me that what was needed was someone to be an “orchestra leader” among the many people and organizations working on earthquake resilience and safety in southern California – and that it should be me. This led to our founding of the Earthquake Country Alliance and our now statewide, national, and international partnerships through Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills. His research on what motivates preparedness actions, and further work with Dr. Michele Wood and others (Wood et al., 2012), is the basis for how we organize all of our public education and preparedness activities (especially ShakeOut). He also was very involved in the development of the 2008 ShakeOut Earthquake scenario (Jones, 2008), for which he and James Goltz wrote the emergency response and communications chapter.

Dr. Tom Jordan, USC, former SCEC Director:
Dennis Meleti was a giant in the field of risk communication, and his rigorous thinking about how to deliver actionable information to the public had a great influence on SCEC’s Communication, Education, and Outreach Program. He served on SCEC’s External Advisory Council during the Center’s first decade (1991-2001) and again in 2007-2009. His second stint was on my watch as SCEC director, beginning at the time when we were preparing for the 2008 Great Southern California Shakeout. His support and guidance were critical to ShakeOut’s success and to the continuation of the annual ShakeOut exercises that eventually involved tens of millions of people across the United States and beyond. As a member of the AC, he was a strong advocate for SCEC’s leadership in the Earthquake Country Alliance and a valued mentor to Mark Benthien and his CEO team. He will be missed by all of us who knew him and who profited from his deep insights into the sociology of communicating hazard and risk.

Kate Long, Dr. Lucy Jones Center (and former SCEC Advisory Council Member):
Dennis was a both bridge builder and a provocateur. He would often say, in his best conspiratorial tone: "All the good stuff is on the margins between the disciplines.”  He respected and encouraged those of us who work along what scientists pejoratively call “the last mile.” That long, steep mile where physical and social sciences get (or don’t get) turned into policy and behavior change; the implementation mile where lives can be saved and lost.  His work on disaster perception and on the importance of coordinated communication were the foundation on which we built ShakeOut.  But his contribution to public safety went beyond his comprehensive research — even beyond his ability to translate those conclusions into actionable advice for emergency management practitioners like me. Dennis could bring the joy.  Dennis’ genuine curiosity, wicked humor and sheer vitality made him — among other things —  the best lunch speaker in the history of lunch speakers. He was also the maker of The Perfect Martini.  But first and finally, he was a one-of-a-kind inspiration, mentor and friend. 

Mark Benthien and Dennis Mileti at the 2009 SCEC Annual Meeting, Palm Springs; Mark's t-shirt with "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" image is one example of the consistent, frequent messaging model which Dennis encouraged us to pursue.

After attending several SCEC annual meetings in Palm Springs each September, Dennis and his partner Ric Oliver decided to retire to nearby Rancho Mirage. He soon (of course!) became active in the City’s Emergency Management Commission, and we worked on several projects together including a video overview of our Seven Steps to Earthquake Safety, and large public presentations at the Rancho Mirage Library. In 2017 Dennis introduced me to Bunni and Rick Benaron, who were developing new "Rocket Rules" earthquake education materials for young children, which continues to be a fantastic partnership. In September 2020 I hosted a webinar  which featured Dennis, who delivered his compelling message for the Coachella Valley about why and how to take action before the next San Andreas earthquake.  In January 2021, just days before he was diagnosed with COVID-19, we were planning a repeat of this webinar with the Coachella Valley Disaster Preparedness Network. I am honored to have been asked to present his talk (for which he and I had worked on over many years) on March 31; registration is open for anyone to attend.

When our leaders and mentors are gone, it makes it clear that “we’re the ones” to carry on or build upon what they created or inspired. I’m fortunate to have been one of those Dennis inspired, and also to work for an organization that has allowed and supported me to become the orchestra leader he encouraged me to be.

To learn more about Dr. Mileti's life and his work, read the New York Times obituary and the tribute collection organized by the Natural Hazards Center.


About the Author

Mark Benthien is Director for Communication, Education, and Outreach for SCEC. Mark communicates earthquake knowledge in order to increase awareness, reduce economic losses, and save lives. Many of these efforts are in coordination with members of the Earthquake Country Alliance, for which Mark serves as Executive Director and lead organizer of the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill (more than 10.8 million participants in 2019). Under Mark's leadership, SCEC now supports the many other states and countries who now participate earth year. Mark received a Bachelor of Science in Geophysics from UCLA in 1995 and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from USC in 2003.


  • Jones, Lucile M., Richard Bernknopf, Dale Cox, James Goltz, Kenneth Hudnut, Dennis Mileti, Suzanne Perry, Daniel Ponti, Keith Porter, Michael Reichle, Hope Seligson, Kimberley Shoaf, Jerry Treiman, and Anne Wein (2008). The ShakeOut Scenario, U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 2008-1150
  • Mileti, Dennis S. 1993. “Communicating Public Earthquake Risk Information.” In Prediction and Perception of Natural Hazards, edited by J. Nemec, J. M. Nigg and F. Siccardi. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Mileti, Dennis S. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.Mileti, Dennis. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.
  • Mileti, Dennis S. and Colleen Fitzpatrick. 1992. “Causal Sequence of Risk Communication in the Parkfield Earthquake Prediction Experiment.” Risk Analysis 12 (3): 393-400.
  • Mileti, Dennis S. and Joanne M. Nigg, 1984. “Earthquakes and Human Behavior”, Earthquake Spectra Vol. 1., No. 1, EERI, November, 1984
  • Wood, M. M., Mileti, D. S., Kano, M., Kelley, M. M., Regan, R., & Bourque, L. B. (2012). "Communicating Actionable Risk for Terrorism and Other Hazards." Risk Analysis, 32(4), 601-615.



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