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FEMA’s Annual Risk Awareness Survey: Findings from Previous Surveys and the Focus for the 2013 Survey
Wynne Kwan, AICP, LEED AP, Senior Planner, BakerAECOM

FEMA’s Risk Mapping, Assessment, and Planning (Risk MAP) vision and goal is to deliver quality data that increases public awareness and leads to action that reduces risk to life and property, through collaboration with State, Local, and Tribal entities.  Since 2010, FEMA has conducted an annual, nationwide survey to determine the risk awareness amongst U.S. local officials and the public.  The objectives of the public survey are to measure the public’s general awareness of flood risk, knowledge of specific ways to mitigate flood risk, perception of barriers to mitigation activities, and steps taken to reduce risks.  The objectives of the local officials’ survey are to determine their awareness/understanding of local flood risk, identify the types of flood prevention or flood risk reduction activities undertaken, determine if/how they share flood risk information with their citizens, and understand how FEMA can make it easier for them to communicate about flood risk.  Findings from the surveys provide a form of measurement to assess how FEMA is doing to reach Risk MAP goals and vision, as well as to inform and refine FEMA’s National Outreach and Community Engagement Strategies.  
                                                            
Based on a review of the past three annual surveys, there are consistent conclusions, including those listed below.  Note that the interpretations of the statistical results are the opinion of FEMA and others may interpret the results differently.
 
Greater Dialogue/Information Sharing Needed Between Local Officials and the Public About Flood Risks – Local officials generally have more detailed knowledge than their citizens concerning flood risks in their communities and the availability of federally-backed flood insurance. Unfortunately, local officials all too often do not have a consistent mechanism for sharing such information.  That results in the public’s awareness of flood risk being largely that of anecdotes or personal experience.  Dialogue and information sharing between local officials and the public would provide the foundation for which both parties can work toward a common goal.  Local officials can and need to share information about available funding and resources to assist the public to undertake mitigation activities, have timely input on the creation of flood maps and information that is both users friendly and easily accessible.  
 
Additionally, the public can share their personal experiences with flood risk with local officials during the development and review of a community’s hazard mitigation plan.
 
Align Communication Methods with Public Preferences – The public expects to learn about their community’s flood risks from their mayors or other elected officials through local media, mailings, meetings, and phone calls.  However, local officials prefer websites, newspaper ads, and real estate disclosures.
 
The more the public knows about flood risks in their community, the better prepared and more likely they are to take action themselves and also assist/support the community to take action to reduce or prevent flood risks.
 
Key findings from the past three surveys, starting with the 2012 survey, are discussed below, followed by a review of the 2013 survey topics.
 
FEMA 2013 Risk Awareness Survey
The Risk Awareness Surveys for 2013 have just been completed; as such, results/findings have not been tabulated.  As in previous years, the public survey was conducted via phone interviews, and the local officials’ survey was available online from June to the end of July.  Information about the survey for local officials was publicized via websites, newsletters, and emails by groups including the American Planning Association, National Association of Counties, Association of State Floodplain Managers, International Association of Emergency Management, Colorado Office of Emergency Management, CRSResources.org, and the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission.
 
In addition to the usual demographic data collected about each community, the local officials’ survey touched upon the following topics:

  • Flood Risk/Natural Hazards that May Affect the Community – Hazard risk categorization, how local official gets information about flood risk, and actions undertaken to reduce or prevent flood risk
  • Hazard Mitigation Plans – Plan status, participants in the planning process, contribution to implementation of mitigation actions, and challenges/constraints/limitations of implementation
  • Programs that Reward Risk Reduction (NFIP, CRS, etc.) – Participation status, motivation for mitigation action implementation, and awareness of changes to the NFIP and if/how NFIP changes influence mitigation actions
  • Available Resources for Mitigation Action Implementation – Funding, staffing, and relationships/partnerships with community organizations
  • Outreach – Frequency and preferred methods
  • Perceptions of FEMA Efforts – Level of satisfaction with FEMA efforts to help local officials and community understand/communicate flood risk, and ideas for how FEMA can help share flood risk informatio 

This year’s local officials’ survey emphasizes mitigation actions and their implementation, as well as public outreach and awareness to address some of the key issues identified in previous surveys.  Additionally, FEMA is trying to gauge awareness of recent changes to the NFIP resulting from Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (BW-12) and how it affects community decisions to implement flood mitigation actions.  
 
Conclusions from the Last Three Annual Surveys
Based on a review of the past three annual surveys, there are consistent conclusions, including those listed below.  Note that the interpretations of the statistical results are the opinion of FEMA and others may interpret the results differently.
 
Greater Dialogue/Information Sharing Needed Between Local Officials and the Public About Flood Risks – Local officials generally have more detailed knowledge than their citizens concerning flood risks in their communities and the availability of federally-backed flood insurance. Unfortunately, local officials all too often do not have a consistent mechanism for sharing such information.  That results in the public’s awareness of flood risk being largely that of anecdotes or personal experience.  Dialogue and information sharing between local officials and the public would provide the foundation for which both parties can work toward a common goal.  Local officials can and need to share information about available funding and resources to assist the public to undertake mitigation activities, have timely input on the creation of flood maps and information that is both user-friendly and easily accessible.  Additionally, the public can share their personal experiences with flood risk with local officials during the development and review of a community’s hazard mitigation plan.
 
Align Communication Methods with Public Preferences – The public expects to learn about their community’s flood risks from their mayors or other elected officials through local media, mailings, meetings, and phone calls.  However, local officials prefer websites, newspaper ads, and real estate disclosures.
 
The more the public knows about flood risks in their community, the better prepared and more likely they are to take action themselves and also assist/support the community to take action to reduce or prevent flood risks.
 
Key findings from the past three surveys, starting with the 2012 survey, are discussed below, followed by a review of the 2013 survey topics.
 
FEMA 2012 Risk Awareness Survey Findings
FEMA conducted its third annual nationwide survey of U.S. households to track the public and local officials’ awareness and understanding of risk management, as well as identify past and current flood prevention and risk reduction activities undertaken and public outreach methodologies.  Key findings/changes observed from the 2012 surveys are highlighted below:

  • Public Flood Risk Awareness Decreased.  The number of people aware that their community is at risk of flooding decreased disturbingly to 2010 levels, dropping to 31 percent, from 41 percent in 2011.  A large majority of respondents did not believe flood was the primary hazard their community faced and did not believe their community was at risk of flooding.

Only a quarter of respondents searched for information about flood risk; the top two reasons cited for conducting this research was due to a recent move to a new home/apartment and a recent flooding event.  The public survey found that searching for information about the flood risk of one’s home was linked with greater activity in protecting one’s home from flooding.  

  • Hazard Mitigation Plans Help to Guide Flood Risk Actions.  Most local officials have taken steps to reduce their community’s flood risk through land use and property protection efforts.  About half of the communities used a hazard mitigation plan to guide action.  Three-quarters of the communities thought the hazard mitigation plan contributed significantly or somewhat to the implementation of mitigation actions in their communities. 
  • Public Still Confused About Flood Insurance.  Two-thirds of public respondents still do not know that federally-backed flood insurance is available in their community, even though over three-quarters of local official respondents said it was available.  However, over half the public respondents know that flood damage was not covered by their homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy. 
  • Outreach Expectations and Activities are Still the Same.  The public still rarely hears about flood risk from local officials and still expects to hear about flood risk from their mayor (or other elected official) or local media through local news and letters/mailings.  The public learns about flood risk largely through personal flood experience or anecdotally. The number of communities that never communicate about flood risk decreased in 2012.  Local officials prefer to communicate about new flood maps using print media, community website, community meetings/open houses, or signs. 

FEMA 2011 Risk Awareness Survey Findings
Both public and local officials were surveyed in 2011 to identify changes in flood risk awareness since the 2010 baseline survey, as well as to continue to inform national outreach and community engagement activities.  Key findings/changes observed from the 2011 surveys are highlighted below:

  • Flood Risk Actions.  Fewer people took steps to prevent or reduce flood risk from the 2010 survey to the 2011 survey.  Those who did not take action cited that they did not believe their home or apartment were at risk; others were not sure what steps to take or cited cost as a factor.  
    As in 2010, most local officials who thought their community was at risk of flooding were more likely to take action to reduce/prevent flood risk, as well as say flood insurance was available.  Local officials in urban communities were much more likely to have taken action than those in rural communities.  Local officials whose communities experienced a federally-declared disaster, who reviewed their community’s flood maps, and who communicated about flood risk had taken action to reduce flood risk.  Flood risk reduction methods included floodplain management, stormwater management, and drainage improvements.  
  • More People Know about Flood Insurance.  Public knowledge about federally-backed flood insurance increased (63 percent respondents in 2011 vs. 33 percent in 2010) with fewer people believing that flood damage was covered by their homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy.  Approximately a quarter of respondents had talked to their insurance agent about flood insurance.  
  • Flood Risk Awareness Through Avenues Other Than Public Officials.  Most people hear about flood risk in the media several times per year and personal flood experience, but still rarely learn of flood risks from local officials.  As in 2010, the public wanted to hear about flood risk on the news and through mailings; phone calls were also identified as another preferred methodology.  The public still expected the mayor or chief elected official to inform them of flood risk, but in the 2011 survey, identified the floodplain manager as well.  Most of the public are still not informed of their flood risk upon moving into a new property.  
     
    On the local officials’ side, results were similar in 2011 as in 2010: many local officials did not communicate often about flood risk.  Any outreach conducted was through the preferred methods of community meetings, open houses, and other events, as well as through the community website and local media.  

FEMA 2010 Risk Awareness Survey Findings
Surveys of the public and local public officials were conducted in 2010 to provide a baseline of flood risk awareness and inform national outreach and community engagement activities.  Key findings from the 2010 surveys are highlighted below:

  • Flood Risk Awareness Varies Among the Public and Local Officials. Nearly two-thirds of households surveyed did not believe their community was at risk of flooding.  However, approximately two-thirds of local public officials thought that their community was at risk for flooding.  
  • Awareness Prompts Action. In both surveys, respondents who believed their community was at risk of flooding were more likely to take action to prevent flood risk.   Respondents in the public survey who heard often about flood risk several times a year or reviewed their community’s flood map were also more likely to take action.  However, less than one-third of public respondents have taken steps to prevent or reduce their flood risk; most local officials have taken steps to reduce their community’s flood risk through land use and property protection.
  • Public Confusion about Flood Insurance.  The majority of the public does not know that federally-backed flood insurance is available to them; many believe their homeowner’s or renter’s insurance covers floods.  While the public does not know that flood insurance is available, their local officials do.  
  • Public Outreach is Key to Awareness.  A large portion of respondents in the public survey said they rarely heard about flood risk, as many local officials do not communicate often about flood risk.  Those local officials who do communicate do so once every few years, with a small percentage of local officials responding that communication about flood risk is done multiple times per year.  
     
    Personal flood experience was the primary source of flood risk information for the public, while local officials learn about flood risk from flood maps as well as personal flood experience.  Most of the public survey respondents were not made aware of their flood risk when they moved in, even though local officials conduct outreach through real estate disclosures.   Additionally, renters are less aware of their flood risk. 
     
    The public expects to hear about flood risk from a chief elected official (mayor) or insurance agent, with preferred communication methodologies being the local news and mailings.  The majority of local officials believed the mayor or emergency manager should be responsible for communicating flood risk to the community.  Website posting and newspaper advertising were the most common public outreach methods to inform the community of new flood maps; other methods include media briefings and blogs or other social media.   
  • Hazard Mitigation Plans Increase Awareness.  Slightly more than half of the local officials said their community had a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan.  Local officials from communities with a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan were more likely to have at least annual communication about flood risk.  Additionally, communities which were recently involved in a FEMA flood mapping study were more likely to have a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan, say Federal flood insurance was available, and participate in a National Flood Insurance Program. 
 

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