Understanding flood risk at the community level

Lisa Doner, Environmental Science & Policy Dept., Plymouth State University
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Initial Publication Date: March 25, 2014 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


This activity creates relevance of FEMA flood maps, flood and flood damage risks, for students, using the home community of the university.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

This activity aims to introduce students to natural hazard maps using Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMS) and Flood Hazard Boundary Maps (FHBMs). It requires students to learn terminology about river morphology and flooding, to navigate menus on the FEMA web site, and search, read and to compare map products and improvements over time. The activity develops an appreciation in students for new mapping and surveying technologies and their affects on risk perception.

The activity requires implementation and application of several skills areas:
  • students must write about the map products using their own words, essentially translating the FEMA website language into a syntax they feel comfortable using to communicate,
  • students must perceive past situations and circumstances and compare them to more recent ones, to understand the evolution of risk maps,
  • students must do online searches for specific information and recognize when they have found the relevant product.
This activity requires data synthesis, application of science and technology information, and some critical thinking. It is meant to built a foundation of understanding upon which critical thinking about flood hazards and risks can be developed.

Risk is addressed in this exercise by showing students how local risks have been measured and assessed by federal agencies. By having the students compare risk maps over time, they develop an awareness that concepts of risk change with knowledge. They also gain a realization that floods can be prepared for and expected, improving community resilience. In a follow-up exercise, students examine how past floods have influenced town development, further highlighting the concept of community resilience and response to flood hazards.

Context for Use

This activity can be done at multiple levels, including both general education and majors. It was designed to be the introductory lesson of a larger project on flood plain development, regulation and natural hazard, but could be a stand-alone exercise on maps, river hydrology and flood hazards.

Description and Teaching Materials

For this assignment you'll be using the online database of flood plains and flood risks created by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). It took me some time of exploring to find the sites I thought should be right up front, so I'll save you that effort and provide the link here:


On this site, you'lll see several choices for information. Hover your cursor over each link and you'll see a brief description of each. Click on each one and get a feel for what is there.
  1. Write a brief description about what each site provides (do not copy paste the description already provided; put it in your own words).
  2. Click on the choice: Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMS)/Flood Hazard Boundary Maps (FHBMs). Click on Historic FIRMS/FHBMs. Enter the choices needed to navigate you to our local town's maps (also need to know the County). Look at all of the maps by clicking on View (looks like a magnifying glass). Compare the maps for the 1970's, 1980's, 1990's and 2000's looking specifically at major roads, water sources (i.e. brooks and streams) that come and go on the various maps. Make a list of major features that have been inconsistently mapped over these intervals.
  3. Now go back to the first link and click on Effective FIRMS/FHBMs. Navigate once again to our town. View the most recent map and print out a copy. Draw on the map using dark black or red ink - outline the high risk floodplain (use the legend on the far right of each map to understand the codes).
  4. Compare the most recent map with previous maps. Write a half page summary of changes in policy/risk awareness/technology that you think contributed to differences in map detail.
  5. Read the attached papers on floods and be prepared to discuss them in class, using what you've learned about flood maps and risks. Geomorphology movie clips and descriptions (Microsoft Word 166kB Mar21 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students in my class have had trouble using the FEMA site because it is very text-rich and they seem reluctant to check out all the possible links to see if they are on the right track. I find it helpful to do an example in class, showing the students where I click and what pops up with each link, and then have them start the assignment in class and finish it as homework.


All of the subsequent assignments build upon this introductory one. Assessment occurs with completion of this written assignment, and also with demonstrated implementation of the knowledge gained later in the semester.

References and Resources