Section C. Communicating with Citizens About Flooding

The leadership and communication skills you bring to your position as an elected official are the same skills you'll rely on to share what you learn from this Guide.

This section helps you begin thinking about the opportunities and responsibility to use your position to drive conversations about flood management, safety and resilience in your community.

Well-informed citizens make smarter decisions and support sound
floodplain management practices.

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Education and outreach tools can strengthen local floodplain management efforts. If everyone knew their flood risk, how to avoid problem areas, how to build wisely and how to protect themselves and their properties, flood losses would be greatly reduced. Reaching out and educating people has an impact.

ASFPM No Adverse Impact How-to Guide for Education and Outreach

14. What should I know when communicating with citizens about flooding?

Work with Your Floodplain Management Staff. Your floodplain management staff are great resources not just for understanding floodplain management, but for driving conversations about resilience. See Section G to learn what it takes to administer an effective floodplain management program.

Local leaders at neighborhood forum.
Leaders plan for flood mitigation. From left: Austin City Council members Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza as well as Mayor Steve Adler discuss South Austin issues Jan. 26 at a neighborhood forum at the Onion Creek Club. Photo by Kelli Weldon, Community Impact Newspaper.

Talk to them as you formulate ideas, projects and messages related to their area of expertise. Rely on their experience and knowledge to hone your message. They have probably interacted with the public as much as you have and may have insights that will inform your message.

Ask them for facts, data and graphics (pictures, videos, drawings, etc.) to support your message. And share credit with them when credit is due – remember, they're your go-to technical partners. And while you're talking to staff, find out if they have the resources and authority to do what's expected of them, whether administering regulations, inspecting development or helping citizens after flood events.

Learn About Your Community's Flood Risk. An important first step in considering how to engage in conversations around flood risk is to understand your residents' current awareness of flood risk and how they think about your community's program. This is covered in more detail in Section A.

Unfortunately, many people view floodplain regulations as restrictions on the use of their land, without acknowledging that flood problems need attention and that how property is developed can make flooding worse. Helping citizens understand whether their properties are at risk and how flooding affects the entire community – and then building their understanding of options to reduce risk and protect public safety and property – should be primary objectives when formulating your messages.

The content in your final messages depends on your audience and your goals, whether you're looking to strengthen your community's floodplain management program, help overcome resistance to regulations, or encourage property owners to explore mitigation and buy insurance for financial protection. Whatever your goal, learning how flooding has affected your community in the past (see Question 2) will make it easier to talk to your constituents.

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FEMA's Community Rating System (CRS) Coordinator's Manual

The CRS Coordinator's Manual provides sample messages and a variety of outreach projects to get your ideas rolling.

Prepare Materials for the Public. Messages are the heart of public outreach (see Section C). They are specific statements or directions that your community considers important for its audiences, which might include floodplain residents and businesses, those who live and work in areas behind levees and downstream of dams, and tourists who visit beaches and riverfront parks. Messages should either clearly state what action the audience should take, or provide basic information to tell people where to get additional information.

You should work with your community's floodplain manager and public information officer to tailor messages and outreach tactics to your community's needs.

Preparation of key materials before the next flood occurs may lighten the load on emergency managers and building safety inspectors, and help you get important information in the hands of citizens faster.

These materials may include templates and masters of handouts, mailers, press releases, videos, letters, building stickers, etc., designed to cover key messages to be disseminated before, during, and after a flood. An effective package will include the materials and the procedures for how they will be used or disseminated.

Some examples of pre-prepared materials described in the CRS Coordinator's Manual include:
When Flooded Turn Around Don't Drown sign.

  • Citizen safety, including evacuation routes, shelter locations, and driving safety (Turn Around Don't Drown®)
  • When it is safe to go back home and don't enter a flood-damaged building until it has been cleared by an inspector
  • Owners must get permits before starting repairs
  • Explanation of the substantial damage rule for floodplain buildings
  • Mitigation opportunities during repairs
  • Information on mitigation grant programs

15. Who is my audience?

In general, three groups of constituents have varied interests in your community's flood risk and floodplain management program: (1) property owners, tenants, businesses, organizations, and others; (2) real estate and insurance professionals; and (3) officials with other agencies.

Property Owners, Tenants, Businesses, Organizations, and Others. These constituents include homeowners, tenants, business owners, builders and developers, and special interest groups such as neighborhood associations, civic groups and environmental organizations. Their interests are personal and sometimes financial. Your messages need to relate flood protection to what matters to them. They'll have questions about the requirements and costs of complying with floodplain management regulations, effects on property appearance and value, saving money by reducing exposure to flooding, whether flood insurance is a good investment, which mitigation options will give them the best return on investment, what happens after a flood, the environmental impacts of floodplain development, and how the floodplain maps were created or can be changed.

Frequently overlooked populations vulnerable to impacts of flooding,
with fewer resources to access assistance.

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  • Tenants renting property, particularly in multi-family housing
  • Low-income residents with less access to flood risk information and fewer options for managing the risk
  • Elderly in assisted living, nursing homes, etc.
  • English as a Second Language residents and immigrant populations
  • Tourists visiting waterfront and coastal locations
  • Homeless residents

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Center for Disease Control (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index
U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit Social Vulnerability Index

Real Estate and Insurance Professionals. These professionals work with property owners and potential buyers. They may have questions or ideas for local government related to their observations and experiences. Even when sellers are not required to disclose flood damage or risk, real estate professionals can help potential buyers identify whether properties are in mapped floodplains. Insurance professionals are valuable allies who help owners understand and obtain flood insurance policies. After damaging floods, agents may help policyholders work with the claims adjusters who play a critical role in post-flood recovery. Unfortunately, misinformation about flood insurance availability is common, even among professionals (see Section F for basic information on flood insurance policies).

Officials with Other Agencies. Elected officials are often enlisted to support local floodplain managers and building officials in working with other agencies such as adjacent communities, regional planning districts, levee and drainage districts, state agencies and federal agencies. Building on others' knowledge and experience to help further your agenda involves listening, learning and asking for help. Remember, more things get done with willing partners, so use your communication skills to build a coalition to work toward solutions.

An effective education and outreach program can provide many benefits.

  • When a flood warning is issued, people move things out of harm's way, evacuate in time and otherwise protect life and property.
  • Homeowners and businesses retrofit or take other permanent flood protection actions.
  • Developers stay away from high-hazard areas and areas needed to sustain natural floodplain functions, or plan to incorporate those areas as amenities.
  • Prospective home buyers are aware of flood risks and make informed decisions before purchasing property, discouraging developers from building in flood hazard areas.
  • Property owners choose to design new buildings to higher levels than required by codes.
  • Property owners and tenants have flood insurance policies to protect their assets and provide financial assistance after future floods.
  • Citizens demand local floodplain management programs that prevent problems from getting worse or adversely affecting others.

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ASFPM No Adverse Impact How-to Guide for Education and Outreach

The more you can know about your audiences, the better. By making communication go both ways, that is, hearing from and speaking to your audience, you will learn more about the issues facing your community. You may find it helpful to conduct a public survey, speak with other elected officials, review community complaints and inquiries about flooding, and hold listening sessions to help understand your audience's concerns. By anticipating your audience and their questions, you can work with your floodplain manager to prepare some answers ahead of time.

16. What are some good opportunities for timely engagement?

From the perspective of floodplain managers, it's important to plan ahead for three key times to communicate with citizens: before, during and after flooding.

You don't need a flood to make your point.

"Make your own event. Take advantage of groundbreaking or dedication ceremonies for flood control facilities, release of a new floodplain map, the presentation of a CRS plaque or an annual flood awareness week or month. A photo op of the mayor signing the proclamation for flood awareness week may draw the reporters and be a venue for your message."

ASFPM Building Public Support for Floodplain Management

Board of County Commissioners presenting a FEMA CRS plaque to the contributing staff members.

The Collier County, FL Floodplain Management website shows this picture of the Board of County Commissioners presenting a FEMA CRS plaque to the contributing staff members, with a reminder that the CRS program saves the community a total of $7.8 million in flood insurance premiums every year. What a great way to share the success with staff and inform the community about the financial success of the community's program! Accessed Feb. 8, 2019.

The following is adapted from the NFIP/CRS Update newsletter (December 2018/January 2019). Anyone interested in communication options and messages will benefit from reviewing the CRS materials (go to and look for "330: Outreach Projects").

Before the Next Flood – Ongoing Communications. Proactive communities send messages to the public well in advance of the next flood, so citizens don't become complacent. People tend to think outreach should ramp up before hurricane season. Although that may be valid on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and many areas east of the Mississippi affected as hurricanes and tropical storms move inland, most communities are vulnerable year-round. Look at the record of past flooding to see if your community has a "flood season," and when it would make sense to distribute messages. Many governors and communities issue proclamations to designate flood awareness weeks. Keep in mind that most NFIP flood insurance policies don't go into effect until 30 days after purchase.

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Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney recommends flood insurance before spring snow melt.

Timing is everything when it comes to communicating flood risks and solutions. In a 30-second video, which aired a month before the typical spring snow melt, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney encouraged people to get flood insurance. The spot ran about 80 times in a two-week period, according to Traci Sears, Montana's state floodplain manager. She reported an increase of 558 policies during this period, a significant increase for such a rural state with just over 1 million residents.

ASFPM Hot Topics (October 2018)

Messages delivered before the next flood can range from dispelling myths about NFIP flood insurance (see Question 20 for many common myths), to safety on flooded roads (Turn Around Don't Drown®), to property protection techniques and how owners and tenants can gather information for insurance claims purposes. People who have not been flooded before tend to dismiss potential risk – how often have we heard some variation of "I've lived here for 20 years and it's never flooded"? Reminding them of past events or flooding of nearby communities can drive home the point that flooding can happen along any body of water.

With help from your floodplain manager, you can tailor your message by identifying at-risk specific neighborhoods, roads and waterways. Informing citizens about the expected characteristics of local floods and letting them know what services they can or cannot expect from your local government can help decrease frustration during or after the next flood. Effective communication goes both ways, giving citizens the opportunity to let you know their concerns.

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Informed elected officials are effective advocates.

When prepared with a solid understanding of the topics covered in this Guide, elected officials become effective advocates for flood safety, compliance with floodplain management regulations, post-flood recovery and the value of having flood insurance policies for financial protection. These messages can be shared in public meetings, one-on-ones with constituents, meet-and-greets, and when responding to media requests for interviews.

During the Next Flood. The National Weather Service keeps people informed about current conditions and forecasts, while local television stations compete to produce coverage and the latest information. Local media are assets to get your message out. Plan for regular press briefings and put out media releases to quash rumors, verify truths, remind citizens of specific actions they need to take, and show your response efforts.

Communities can take this a step farther and send messages that are specific to high-risk areas. For example, explaining why a particular neighborhood should expect more accumulation of water because of insufficient drainage, narrow channels or "choke points." Especially when conditions change quickly, using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms offers more flexibility and can be invaluable during events. Even when the power is out, people find ways to recharge phone batteries to stay connected.

After the Next Flood. Recovery after floods can be a little easier if citizens and community officials are better prepared beforehand. Even so, people faced with damaged homes and businesses can be overwhelmed by where to start. They're most likely focused on just getting back to normal, without realizing there are ways to reduce exposure to future flooding. Those actions are called "mitigation." See Section B for more about preparing for and recovering from floods. Question 7 will help you think through what to say when your constituents just want to get back to the way it was before the flood.

Communities can turn their websites into a one-stop shop for information on permit requirements, locations where utility repair crews are working, where people can pick up ice and water and tips on handling mold and mildew. What makes a successful recovery won't be the same for everyone, so it will be important to get the right messages to the right people.

Property owners have responsibilities after buildings are damaged by flooding:

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  1. When buildings appear to have structural damage, obtain safety inspections by building officials or code enforcement officers before going into damaged structures. The safety inspection is not equivalent to a preliminary substantial damage determination.
  2. Take photographs of all building damage and damaged contents.
  3. If buildings are covered by NFIP flood insurance policies, contact insurance companies. Insurance companies will assign adjusters to inspect and prepare claim documentation. Owners must submit "Proof of Loss" information within 60 days of the flood event.
  4. Seek emergency assistance by registering in person at Disaster Recovery Centers or filing damage information on FEMA's website. Emergency assistance may also be available for tenants.
  5. Apply for permits and provide documentation of damage and cost estimates to repair buildings to pre-damage condition. Detailed costs for repairs should be prepared and signed by licensed contractors.
  6. Work closely with local officials and contractors to ensure permits are obtained before starting repairs.
  7. Meet with local officials to determine requirements for bringing substantially damaged buildings into compliance with flood damage prevention ordinances and other applicable codes. This may involve elevating buildings on higher, compliant foundations or other mitigation measures.
  8. Obtain and submit Elevation Certificates to document lowest floor elevations and other building characteristics.

Florida Floodplain Administrator's Post-Disaster Toolkit

17. How do I deliver my messages?

You'll use the same communication skills and methods to deliver your messages that you use every day with your constituents. Talking about disasters may not appeal to many, so stay positive when wording your messages: focus on lessons learned, actions that can improve the outcome and what has worked well in the past or in other communities. Explain how your community's floodplain management program and what you're advising citizens relates to what matters to your community members now, and what's important for your community's long-term resilience.

Avoid technical terms and avoid terms that are misleading and confusing. "Mitigation" (see Section B) and "100-year flood" (see Question 25) are important terms not used in everyday conversation, so be prepared to help people understand the concepts.

Talking Floodplain Management: How to Say it Better

From: ASFPM Building Public Support for Floodplain Management
What Not to Say How to Say it Better
FEMA's map put you in the floodplain. It took nature thousands of years to form this area to carry and store excess water. Then one day, your house was built in the middle of it. With this map, we can see better where the floodwaters are likely to go.
You have to comply. It's a federal requirement. To protect you and your neighbors, our community adopted some rules… The rules look tough when you're dry, but after a flood people thank us for enforcing them.
There's a 1 in 100 chance you'll be flooded. There's a good chance you'll be flooded. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but being in a floodplain means that you're much more likely to get flooded than if you were on higher ground.
I have no idea. Let me put you in touch with the person responsible for that.

There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Many communities have already been through floods, and you can learn from their experiences and outreach materials. Here are a few ways to search for best practices and outreach projects in other communities:

With regard to television and print media, be sure to develop and inform your contacts at local television and radio stations, and the local papers. Many local reporters are generalists and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about topics of interest in the community. Hold background sessions or press briefings and keep reporters posted with fact sheets, emails, phone calls and frequent contacts. Write letters to the editor or offer to write an occasional column in the local paper.

Pictures of damage can draw attention in a story, but be sure to show how good practices such as elevating buildings higher work. Ask your staff to organize a press tour to visit areas where homes were built above the flood level. Encourage media to report on mitigation projects, such as removing homes from the floodplain or elevating homes on higher foundations. Look for opportunities to host an information table at festivals, neighborhood fairs, or farm shows.

18. What makes an effective outreach project?

Effective flood risk outreach projects have several attributes that make them successful:

  • They get people interested first, and then provide relevant information or site-specific advice.
  • They're short and interesting, have colorful graphics and photos.
  • Presentations are delivered by enthusiastic, knowledgeable people.
  • Messages are clear and unambiguous, and desired actions are spelled out using simple instructions.
  • Information is geographically personalized and locally relevant.
  • Source of information is viewed as credible, authoritative and relevant.
  • Costs and benefits of various protection measures are outlined.
  • Flood insurance is always recommended.
  • They tie into or reinforce messages from other sources at the local level.

Effective outreach projects get the word out in ways that catch attention, whether through websites, blogs, podcasts, videos or to-the-point messaging on Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms. Find out what your community is using for official messaging and how citizens interact with community officials. If your website gets only 10 hits a month, but the mayor's monthly podcast is heard by 300 people, the choice is obvious. Multiple approaches are most effective. Your public information officer and webmaster probably have ways to create a single message/graphic to post to multiple platforms at once.

Look for partners to help achieve your objectives.

Other public agencies, adjacent communities and private organizations may share your goals and may be happy to share your message. Use their platform, whether it be public speaking, newsletters or brochure distribution to help deliver your message as well.

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Learn how floodplain management can be a mutual concern of stakeholders interested in recreation, fish and wildlife, water supply, water quality, urban redevelopment, economic development, housing improvement, agriculture, historic preservation, education, transportation and infrastructure by downloading ASFPM's Using Multi-Objective Management to Reduce Flood Losses in Your Watershed.

19. What are some important messages I should consider?

Part of the answer to this question depends on when you're communicating (see Question 16 for suggested opportunities) and who your audience is (see Question 15 about typical audiences). Always work with your floodplain manager and emergency manager before issuing official statements. Choose a small number of high-priority messages rather than overloading citizens with many messages. For example:

  • Find out if your property is in a mapped floodplain – check online or visit the permit office to view flood maps.

  • Is your home or business in the mapped floodplain or an area that has flooded? Buy flood insurance for financial protection.

  • Don't fill in the floodplain – water always takes the path of least resistance and filling in the floodplain can send floodwater onto your neighbor's property. Floodplain fill can also interfere with wetlands and groundwater infiltration.

  • Don't dump in the creek – the house you flood may be your own.

  • Building a new house? Go the extra step and elevate at least 3 feet above the minimum 1% annual chance flood elevation. Is there a mapped 0.2% annual chance floodplain (500-year, shown on FIRMs as shaded Zone X)? If yes, elevate above the elevation of that frequency flood. While better protecting your investment, lower annual flood insurance premiums will usually recover the added costs in a short time.

  • Planning to add to or improve your home or business? You'll need a permit and should know about requirements before you get too far along in your planning.

  • Floodplain regulations help reduce flood damage. Meeting the requirements may add to the cost of a project, but it's important that we follow our adopted rules. If we don't, we'll put people and property at risk, and we don't want that to happen. Our staff may be able to offer suggestions for affordable ways to satisfy the regulations.

  • Was your home or business damaged? Call the building department for a safety inspection and be sure the power is turned off before you enter. Talk to the staff to find out what permits you'll need and what requirements apply.

  • Your building was determined to be substantially damaged? Let's talk about the benefits of building back safer and stronger.

20. What should I know to dispel myths and counter common misconceptions about NFIP flood insurance?

Review the basics of NFIP flood insurance policies in Section F of this Guide and, where you can learn why property owners should buy and renew policies, what goes into the amount they'll pay, how they can pay less and what policyholders should do before and after floods. Some brief facts that will help you counter common myths you may hear or have to deal with from affected constituents are summarized here.

MYTH: I receive flood insurance through my homeowner's insurance.

  • FACT: Homeowner insurance policies do not normally cover flood damage. That is why the federal government backs the NFIP. You can purchase flood insurance through an insurance agent or company.

MYTH: My homeowner's insurance agent can tell me if I need flood insurance.

  • FACT: Not necessarily. Some insurance agents are not familiar with communities that participate in the NFIP or floodplain hazards. First, check with your community permit official about the flood risk in your area, including what's shown on maps and whether other areas have experienced flooding. Then talk to your agent about flood insurance coverage. For more information, go to or contact the NFIP call center at (800) 427-4661.

MYTH: Only those who live in a Special Flood Hazard Area can buy flood insurance.

  • FACT: Anyone can buy flood insurance if you live in a participating community, which must enforce floodplain ordinances and building requirements that meet or exceed FEMA guidelines. If your community does not participate in the NFIP, you can make a request for it to do so through your mayor, city council or county commissioner's office.

MYTH: It doesn't make sense to pay for flood insurance if you are in a low-risk flood zone.

  • FACT: People outside of high-risk flood zones shown on FEMA maps file more than 20 percent of all NFIP claims and receive one-third of federal disaster assistance for flooding. Flooding can occur on any low-lying land, even if not close to a stream, river, or shoreline. Flooding is the number one natural disaster in the United States. The NFIP's Preferred Risk Policy, available in Zone X, is very affordable. The annual premium may be as low as $127 (plus fees) for $20,000 building and $8,000 contents.

MYTH: I don't need flood insurance if I can get disaster assistance from FEMA.

  • FACT: A flooding incident must be declared a federal disaster by the President before FEMA assistance becomes available. Federal disaster declarations are issued in less than 50 percent of flooding events. If a declaration is made, federal disaster assistance typically is in the form of a low-interest disaster loan, which must be repaid. Any grants that may be provided are not enough to cover all losses. NFIP pays for covered damage even when major disasters are not declared, and may cover more of your losses.

MYTH: Even if my property did flood, it wouldn't be by much.

  • FACT: Just a few inches of water over the first floor can cost thousands of dollars to repair.

MYTH: You can't buy flood insurance right before or during a flood.

  • FACT: You can purchase flood insurance at any time, as long as your community participates in the NFIP. However, there is usually a 30-day waiting period after the premium payment before the policy becomes effective. Contact the NFIP call center at (800) 427-4661 if you are told you cannot purchase flood insurance.

MYTH: Flood insurance is only available for homeowners.

  • FACT: Most people who live in NFIP participating communities, including renters, condo owners and businesses, are eligible to purchase flood insurance. A maximum of $250,000 of building coverage is available for single-family residential buildings; $250,000 per unit for residential condominiums. The limit for contents coverage on all residential buildings is $100,000, which is also available to renters. Commercial structures can be insured to a limit of $500,000 for the building and $500,000 for the contents.

Next section: Volume II: Moving Beyond the Essentials Hand pointing right icon.

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