Dennis Mileti, Expert on Preparing for Disasters, Dies at 75

Dennis Mileti, Expert on Preparing for Disasters, Dies at 75

Dennis Mileti, Expert on Preparing for Disasters, Dies at 75

Dennis Mileti, Expert on Preparing for Disasters, Dies at 75

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

A year ago, an opinion article in The Washington Post about the flailing American response to the emerging Covid-19 disaster quoted Dennis S. Mileti, an expert on how to prepare for and react to catastrophic events.

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

Ten months later, on Jan. 31, Dr. Mileti himself became a Covid-19 casualty. He died of the disease at a hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where he lived, his husband, Ric Oliver, said. He was 75.

Dr. Mileti was director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1994 to 2003; wrote a pivotal book in the field, “Disasters by Design” (1999); and was often quoted on the finer points of disaster planning and response. Reporters and government agencies sought him out for input on Hurricane Katrina, the catastrophic tsunami of 2004, even the potential impact of the temporary closing of a Los Angeles freeway.

He preached the importance of consistent messaging in the face of calamity; otherwise, he said, people can choose to follow whatever advice they like, and efforts to mitigate loss will fail. Friends and colleagues posting tributes after his death wondered how the past year might have been different had his advice been followed.

Dennis Stephen Mileti was born on Nov. 7, 1945, in New York City to Victor and Angela Mileti. When he was an adolescent the family moved to North Hollywood, Calif., where his father, a jeweler who had worked for Cartier in New York, opened his own shop.

In a 2012 interview with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Dr. Mileti said an early moviegoing experience had helped steer him toward his career path. The movie was “Godzilla.”

“I thought I was fascinated by the monster,” he said, “but in hindsight I realize I was fascinated by the way the small herds of people moved when the monster appeared.”

After earning a master’s degree at California State University in Los Angeles, he received his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1975, studying under Gilbert F. White, the founder of the Natural Hazards Center.

The current director of the center, Lori Peek, who studied under Dr. Mileti, said he had excelled at putting across his ideas.

“Dennis was a captivating speaker,” she said by email. “He didn’t mind ruffling feathers, because his goal was to make people think and then to encourage them to act.”

His insights went beyond the obvious, like having an evacuation plan for hurricane zones, to deeper questions, including how efforts to avoid hazards might backfire — a dam that controls flooding, for example, might lead to excessive development downstream, which carries future risks.

“Many of the nation’s dams, bridges and other structures are approaching the end of the designed life, revealing how little thought their backers and builders gave to events 50 years hence,” he wrote in his book. “Similarly, by providing advance warnings of severe storms, this country may well have encouraged more people to build in fragile coastal areas. Such development, in turn, makes the areas more vulnerable by destroying dunes and other protective features.”

It isn’t really nature that is responsible for calamity, he said, but humans who don’t plan properly when they settle and build.

“Even if the events from nature aren’t getting larger,” he said in a 2006 interview with Marshall Frech, producer of “The Water’s Edge,” a documentary series on flooding, “the impacts are skyrocketing because of decisions that humanity is making, and those decisions are consistent with short-term economic gains.”

He and Mr. Oliver, who had been together since 1967, married seven years ago. Dr. Mileti is also survived by a brother.

Dr. Mileti recommended that everyone envision having to survive 10 days in a desert in high heat and prepare accordingly.

“For me, I start my day with a cup of coffee and end it with a martini,” he said in the 2012 interview, “so my readiness kit includes a cowboy percolator coffee pot, Duraflame logs, a bottle of gin, a tiny ice cube maker and an electric generator.”


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