Cover: Community and Individual Disaster Resilience for Floods

Community and Individual Disaster Resilience for Floods

Options for Improving Protective Action Guidance

Published May 8, 2023

by Rachel Steratore, Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, Shoshana R. Shelton, Nipher Malika, Kristin J. Leuschner, Tucker Reese


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Research Questions

  1. What is the existing landscape of flood risk communication approaches? What is known from literature about these approaches, as well as the social factors influencing uptake of flood protective action guidance?
  2. How can FEMA improve uptake of its flood protective action guidance? What gaps exist and how might FEMA use an understanding of social factors to target its flood risk messaging to different audiences?
  3. How can FEMA improve its overall flood communication strategy to enhance protective action, based on principles from risk communication best practice?

Effective risk communication is necessary to reduce the billions of dollars in damage and hundreds of fatalities that occur yearly from floods in the United States. The purpose of this report is to help Department of Homeland Security officials identify ways to improve protective action flood guidance in response to growing flood risks that continue to cause adverse effects and threaten lives and property. Drawing on a review of academic and grey literature, authors used a conceptual framework, which was operationalized to review Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)'s flood protective action guidance through the lens of a social-ecological model—comprising individual, relationship, community, and societal factors. Authors then took a broader look at risk communication best practices to collect principles that could help improve the effectiveness of flood risk communication, and developed recommendations for implementation. This study resulted in key findings and related recommendations that should help FEMA improve its flood communication strategy and messaging. First, components of the social-ecological model can be used to understand how people respond to protective action guidance and to develop a communication strategy tailored to the needs of the target audience. Second, partnering with the community can improve communication, which requires a reciprocal relationship between the organization seeking to communicate and the intended audience. Third, establishing flood messaging standards, including general readability, can help build an understanding of how messages might interact and be received by different audiences and can guide the development of messages that are more likely to result in protective action.

Key Findings

Many factors shape individual behavior, including a person's relationships with others, broader community connections, and social and cultural norms

  • The four dimensions of the social-ecological model are individual factors, relationship factors, community factors, and societal factors.

Social factors must be considered across all stages of the messaging process, including the development of an overall communication strategy and messaging.

  • Messaging is filtered through the context of the social factors, which influence whether and how the message is received by the intended audience and whether it leads to the desired protective action.
  • Factor levels cannot simply be disaggregated for messaging, but might instead be viewed holistically, to understand how individual, relationship, community, and societal factors interrelate and shape each other.
  • The social-ecological model can be used to understand how people respond to protective action guidance, including potential challenges in acting on risk messages, and to develop a communication strategy tailored to the needs of the target audience.

Risk perception plays a key role in influencing whether people adhere to protective action guidance

  • Experts typically base their perceptions on a technical rationale, while public perceptions can be driven by experiences and feelings.
  • Broader external factors limiting one's ability to adapt can also inhibit protective action among those who do perceive the risks as significant.

Establishing flood messaging standards can improve communication

  • Standardized one-size-fits-all messages tend to be ineffective for reaching all populations. Instead, an ongoing partnership between the organization seeking to communicate and the intended audience can support more-effective communication.


FEMA should establish flood messaging standards. Assessing messages by their general readability, strength of evidence used to develop guidance, and broad understanding of the potentially relevant social factors at play can help build an understanding of how messages might interact and be received by different audiences.

  • FEMA should leverage community-centered approaches. Incorporating community-centered approaches across the messaging cycle can foster trust and uptake of flood protective action guidance.
  • Partnering with communities is crucial across all cycle phases. The five key steps for partnering with communities are (1) partner with members of the target community; (2) engage with the target community in the process and learn about its values, interests, needs, and resources; (3) develop message content with the audience in mind; (4) deliver messages using a variety of formats and channels; and (5) monitor and evaluate regularly.
  • More community-centered research is needed to better understand people's perspectives on floods, flood guidance, and uptake of protective actions.
  • Any future research will need to address questions surrounding the feasibility of operationalizing a more-community-centered approach to flood risk messaging within FEMA, including (1) how should FEMA be structured to ensure that it works effectively with partners? (2) what human resource and material skills are needed? and (3) what are the current barriers inhibiting a whole community approach and how can they be overcome?
  • FEMA should consider how this study and related future research might be used to develop a protective action guidance tool that helps translate the guidance into more-concrete but easy-to-understand terms.

This research was sponsored by DHS S&T and conducted within the Infrastructure, Immigration, and Security Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.