Mapping Disaster: Flood Visualization and Hazard Preparation

While the federal government and other national organizations have been collecting data on the weather, climate, and disaster events and utilizing maps to illustrate the data since at least the mid-19th century, the digital turn has created a unique opportunity to compile this data in a central location that provides a multitude of potential uses for a large number of stakeholders.[1] If we believe “information is power” (which collectors of data throughout history seem to), then it follows that the more people with information, the more power is distributed. The utility/power in having data on flood events includes, but is not limited to:

  1. The ability to predict with some degree of certainty which locales are likely to be struck with another flood event
  2. The ability to prepare for the event of a flood.
  3. The ability for insurance agencies, developers, etc. to create and implement plans based on the likelihood of a flood to occur in a given area.
  4. The ability to recognize and alleviate vulnerability ahead of flood events.

For my print project, I intended to look at how different national weather/climate/disaster organizations and relief agencies use digital visualization and mapping tools to represent disaster events—in particular, flooding. By analyzing the tools developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and assessing their purposes for developing these tools, I hope to get a sense of:

  1. What ways each utilizes historic flood data to inform/populate their data visualization
  2. Whom these projects are created for and how they are intended to be used
  3. What the intended outcome(s) of these projects are
  4. Whether there are significant gaps in the data used and if so, where the data is lacking
  5. Who benefits from these digital tools—most importantly, do they help the people/environs most directly vulnerable to flooding?

The answers to these questions demonstrate how historic data can be used in disaster planning/forecasting, but will also illuminate further questions to be addressed in subsequent projects. For instance, most of these maps don’t utilize or juxtapose demographic data or housing data for the areas most susceptible to flooding (though the Climate Central Map comes the closest). This type of data is essential to understanding the layers of vulnerability and can highlight nuances of wealth disparity and housing insecurity that make recovery from disaster events all the more challenging (and often, impossible).

The Washington, D.C. As A Case Study:

The District has experienced chronic urban flooding since at least the mid-19th century. In the early 20thcentury, in particular, flood events occurred every year or so, overflowing the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and jeopardizing the environment, buildings and monuments, and human life along the floodplain. Following major flooding in early 1936, the Flood Control Act of 1936 was passed, officially charging the Army Corps of Engineers with flood control efforts across the nation. In D.C., this has manifested as building a series of dams and levees, dredging the Potomac in different places, and redevelopment along the rivers.[2] Mitigation efforts notwithstanding, routine flooding has continued to plague the District, inundating the Federal Triangle neighborhood as recently as 2006 and sweeping through the low-lying sections of Old Town Alexandria multiple times, annually.

Additionally, the areas most susceptible to flooding in the District metro have historically been those with working-class African American residents. Though mid-century urban development and gentrification have ultimately displaced the vast majority of these communities, the legacies of environmental racism persist. The layers of discrimination and risk to flooding in the District cannot be disentangled, and are critical to understanding vulnerability to disaster events in Washington, D.C.

The Intersection of Disasters and History

While Environmental History has now been a primary area of focus in history circles for the past half-century, historians have been slower to warm up to disaster studies (or rather, have just been focused on writing about other things?). This is not to say that no one has paid attention to disaster events or social vulnerability from a historical perspective. Indeed, noted historian Ted Steinberg has written extensively about chronic vulnerability to disaster events, including floods, in Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. Other environmental historians, such as Jared Orsi in his Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles, have approached hazards from an urban/social perspective. Both scholars offer useful frameworks for understanding the implications of disaster events and how both disaster events and the efforts to mitigate them shape how cities form. These scholars and others have utilized the same data gathered from the USGS and NOAA to inform their studies. And while both weather/climate organizations and historians, alike, have begun to utilize digital tools to represent and share their findings, environmental historians and, in particular, those studying disaster events, have yet to fully embrace digital visualization and mapping tools. This intersection of disaster studies, history, and digital visualization, then, is ripe for exploration.


[1] For more information on the utility (and potential pitfalls) of historic flood maps, see: https://www.floods.org/ace-files/documentlibrary/committees/Insurance/Why_Historic_Flood_Maps_Important_FINAL_091010.pdf;https://theconversation.com/online-tools-can-help-people-in-disasters-but-do-they-represent-everyone-116810.

[2] https://www.ncpc.gov/docs/Flooding_and_Stormwater_in_Washington_DC_Jan2008.pdf

One Reply to “Mapping Disaster: Flood Visualization and Hazard Preparation”

  1. Very impressed by this idea! Exploring the way historical data on floods is visualized in different digital visualizations for hazard planning clearly fits as a subject for digital history. It’s great to see a concept for a project like this that has historical connections but also gets at a context, like disaster planning, that is outside the bounds of what we generally think about for public history work.

    I think you are right to be thinking about contextualizing this in the history of a variety of mapping initiatives and efforts. That is, the federal agencies producing interactive maps now have long produced print corollaries, so there is a history to connect with on how to represent this kind of data going back a good ways.

    Given that the examples you are drawing from are also federal government agencies, it strikes me that something like “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” could be a useful resource for situating a project like this. A lot of that book focuses on the process by which States turn data about their places and people into representations that then become the basis of state actions. Mapping plays a big role there and I think it’s entirely worth thinking about how as state agencies move more and more into using digital tools to map and track their domains that view of their spaces change.

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