Mapping Disaster: Measuring the Human Cost of Disaster Events

In the wake of disaster events, information and data is collected and disseminated about the cost of the event—from economic, infrastructural, and human perspectives. “Human cost,” however, is predominantly measured in loss of life, rather than the lasting physical, mental, and financial cost for the survivors. And while the data collected is filed away to be used by disaster and weather analysts, insurance agents, and city planners, the voices of those most directly impacted are obscured, the spaces and places they occupied pre-disaster rendered at best, unlivable, at worst, wiped from the landscape. By combining the human cost of the survivors with the empirical data gathered about weather patterns, environmental and infrastructural impacts, mitigation and recovery efforts, and more, we have a more complete understanding on the heavy toll disasters—especially chronic events like urban flooding—on our lives. Only through seeing the full picture can we begin to respond in ways that not only offer preparation for disaster events, but also lasting change that ensures certain communities do not perpetually bear the brunt of these events. 


My Digital Project, to a large degree, responds to and builds upon the digital tools I discussed in my Print Project proposal.

I plan to use the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform to create an interactive digital map that brings together stories from the heart of places and spaces struck by disaster events with the raw historical scientific and demographic data of those events. Using Washington D.C. as a case study, this project focuses predominantly on the flood plains along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Several unique components will make up this digital mapping interface:

  • Maps from different periods of D.C. history—perhaps for each decade—overlaid upon one another. 
  • Specific locations of disaster events marked on the maps.
  • Specific infrastructural changes to the landscape—dykes, levees, dams—intended to mitigate disaster events marked on the maps.
  • Demographic data for the neighborhoods and locations impacted by disaster manifested in some form on the map (perhaps using color coding).
  • Oral or written stories/testimony attached to different locations where disasters have struck.

By selecting different maps, a user can not only observe which areas have been struck by a disaster event during a specific period of time, but also analyze change over time, whether that change demonstrates larger patterns of class-/race-based displacement or environmental discrimination.


  • Identify specific disaster-struck locations
  • Identify zones/neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to disaster
  • Identify demographics particularly vulnerable to disaster
  • Demonstrate change over time:
    1. Increased (or not) frequency of disaster events.
    2. Increased modifications to the landscape to mitigate/control flooding.
    3. The movement or displacement of communities (both as a result of disaster events and, more directly, as a result of gentrification/development projects/urban “renewal”).
      • Also, I hypothesize that such a project could demonstrate a link between flood control efforts and urban development, revealing which communities are deemed worthy of “protecting” and which communities have their vulnerability perpetuated and/or magnified.
  • Leverage the increased awareness garnered by the goals above toward the creation of educational tools, resources for disaster preparedness and response, and, ultimately, changes in policy concerning development and displacement in flood plains. 

The audience would include: D.C. residents interested in the history and, indeed, contemporary environmental events/responses/conversations occurring in their state/city/neighborhood; members of the neighborhoods most directly impacted by disaster events (or historically impacted), as they, in particular, would be encouraged to share their lived experience(s) as part of the effort to develop and continually add to the project; city planners, real estate developers, experts tasked with studying, mitigating, and responding to disaster events; aid organizations; and municipal, state, and federal law and policymakers.


Various groups have attempted to achieve similar analyses of vulnerability to disaster events:

The American Red Cross “Mapping Vulnerability” overlays maps showing different census data for social vulnerability and local hazards (floods, seismic, etc.). The primary goal of their project is to develop disaster preparedness in these communities via education, tools, and resources. While these maps aren’t interactive, they provide an excellent framework for understanding layers of vulnerability and why/how they contribute to/compound the risks associated with/resulting from disaster events. 

The Narratives of Displacement and Resistance, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, is a digital oral history transmedia project that charts instances of eviction throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Included on this map are oral history interviews with individuals whom have been directly impacted by eviction notices and displacement. 

While natural hazards aren’t outlined on this map, it provides an excellent model for the form a digital map that incorporates demographic/empirical data and personal testimony can take. Displacement is arguably also a disaster event to the people who experience it, and thus this project also provides a framework for understanding how forcible relocation (via eviction or as a result of a natural hazard) compounds vulnerability. 


Overarching outreach: Targeted social media campaign to reach stakeholders at all levels.

Grassroots Outreach: For interview participants and community members, the strategy for outreach and publicity would start within the neighborhoods themselves. With the D.C. case study, neighborhood branches of the DCPL would serve as a center for disseminating information about the project, recruiting interview participants/narrators, and serving as a repository for interviews.

Mid-level Outreach: For city planners/developers/aid organizations/etc., approaching specific stakeholders directly (after conducting research on which individuals/organizations might have a vested interest in these particular neighborhoods).

High-level Outreach: For city/state/federal officials, a more concrete lobbying/communication effort based on a representative’s voting and policy history would be the goal.


At a very base level, this project will be evaluated based on the willingness of participants to share their testimonies through the project. The experiences of those most directly impacted by disaster events are often left out of data collection processes in the wake of an event, yet they are arguably one of the most important and illuminating types of data we have. 

As declensionist as it may seem, the efficacy of this project will also be measured in the types of educational resources and tools for preparation developed out of the information provided by this project. When future disaster events arise—and they will arise—changes in disaster preparation and reactions based on the information shared through this project will determine its utility as a tool for on-the-ground response.

Higher levels of evaluation might include whether or not tangible policy change comes from increasing pressure on representatives. 

Ultimately, this project’s value ranges from illuminating the humanity within the disaster zone to triggering lasting change. 

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