The University of Massachusetts Amherst

The inequitable impact of natural disasters: Advising MA policymakers on mitigating the impact of flooding and post-flood hazards on populations most at risk 

Photo of team of researchers: New study will advise MA policymakers on mitigating the impact of flooding and post-flood hazards on populations most at risk 

Research Team pictured above from left: Christian Guzman (Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering), Seda Salap-Ayça (Lecturer, Geosciences), Christine Hatch Associate Extension Professor (Geosciences), Eve Vogel (Associate Professor, Geosciences), and Cielo Sharkus (Graduate Student, Civil, and Environmental Engineering)

Natural disasters may hit rich and poor communities indiscriminately, but post-disaster impacts, such as flooding and related hazards, are far from equitably distributed. As a team of engineers and geoscientists at UMass Amherst are finding, low-income and ethnic and racial communities are disproportionately at risk for flooding events and least equipped to bounce back from them. According to this team, a flood’s consequences on a community depend not only on its geography but on socioeconomic status and other features of its community demographics. This is further evidence that policy responses to climate change must move in lock-step with efforts to advance equity. This innovative project will map community vulnerability and help policymakers make more effective decisions for environmental justice. 

PIc of cars in flooded streetWhile scientists are now able to predict the timing of tropical storms such as Hurricane Ida and Hurricane Henry, our knowledge of the best policies to mitigate the impact of heavy rains on local populations remains murky at best. Terrifying images of collapsed roofs and gushing water pouring through subway stations demonstrate the imminent need for government to evaluate its mitigation plans for devastating weather events. To do so, policymakers need scientists to develop actionable ideas that alleviate this recurring problem. This diverse team of scientists seeks to do just that. 

The team brings together faculty and graduate student researchers from engineering and the geosciences to analyze demographics from U.S. census data and produce maps that show who is most vulnerable to flooding and related effects. They will quantitatively compare flood risks of different types of residents living in the same municipality. Their focus is on the case of Massachusetts, where floods can be especially hazardous because a history of heavy industrialization increases the chance of contaminant spread. The research team’s innovation is to combine several indices of risk (social vulnerability index, environmental justice factors) with the technique of a self-organizing map (SOM). The SOM will analyze spatial clustering and indicate the most influential demographic factors that cluster in flood-risk zones. Drawing from multiple disciplines, the study will provide nuanced and comprehensive policy recommendations to meet this complex societal challenge. The team is funded by the UMass Amherst Institute of Diversity Sciences, which invests in multidisciplinary STEM research for social justice and offers mentored research opportunities for students. 

Cielo Sharkus, a UMass Amherst graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the research team, has had a lifelong interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion as a woman of color from an economically disadvantaged background. Sharkus says she "always found the disparities between communities of color and white communities to be staggering” and she knew she wanted to minimize the gap between privileged and marginalized groups. This mentored research experience provides her with an opportunity to fulfill this goal. 

Sharkus reflects on the opportunity to work on a multidisciplinary project that “challenges the conventions of traditional civil and environmental engineering, extending the wealth of resources and knowledge needed to bridge the gaps of inequity and injustice in hydrological research.” This project aligns with Sharkus’ aim to use engineering “to assist marginalized and vulnerable communities in preparing for and recovering from climate-related disasters.”  

Research seeks to advance environmental justice policy in MA  

Once these scientists determine who is most vulnerable to flooding and post-flood hazards, they will compare their data with the populations targeted in proposed Massachusetts flood risk protection policies. Research findings will be shared with policymakers so that they may better assess the vulnerability of different groups to floods and develop targeted policies and programs which would increase the likelihood of recovery during a disaster – decreasing human suffering and reducing economic loss.  

The findings will form the basis of a larger project for environmental justice where the team will develop methods to (1) investigate human behavior and socio-cultural dynamics to assess community-based environmental impacts and (2) quantify ways in which post-flooding water quality hazards in vulnerable communities affect human and environmental health. 

The preliminary results of this work were presented in a Critical Geographies of Disaster and Relief session of the American Association of Geographers Annual Conference 2022. Engineering PhD student, Cielo Sharkus also presented the outcomes and had a great discussion with the attendees. The team's plan for external grant applications is to write and submit a proposal this summer: August 16, 2022. The funding agency is the National Science Foundation, and the solicitation is the Human-Environment and Geographical Science, seeking $400,000 for a 3 years grant. The team's conceptual plan for the grant is to build on the preliminary analysis done, more fully integrating the flood-risk and vulnerability led respectively by Guzman and Şalap-Ayça, adding 3 components considering fluvial geomorphic flood risk (building on Christine Hatch’s and Eve Vogel’s RiverSmart work,, and a strong element of public and policy outreach which will focus on Commonwealth of Massachusetts flood resilience and environmental justice policies and programs. For the latter, the team hopes to draw on Hatch’s Extension experience and resources, and Vogel’s experience with policy advocacy networks and the Public Engagement Fellows program and resources.

For more information on this project, and other STEM research projects for social justice funded by the Institute of Diversity Sciences, see our funding page here or reach out to us directly at

To support multidisciplinary research and mentored research experiences for students using STEM for social justice, please consider giving to IDS.