Using disaster outcomes to validate components of social vulnerability to floods: Flood deaths and property damage across the USA

Beth Tellman, Cody Schank, Bessie Schwarz, Peter D. Howe, Alex de Sherbinin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Social vulnerability indicators seek to identify populations susceptible to hazards based on aggregated sociodemographic data. Vulnerability indices are rarely validated with disaster outcome data at broad spatial scales, making it difficult to develop effective national scale strategies to mitigate loss for vulnerable populations. This paper validates social vulnerability indicators using two flood outcomes: death and damage. Regression models identify sociodemographic factors associated with variation in outcomes from 11,629 non-coastal flood events in the USA (2008-2012), controlling for flood intensity using stream gauge data. We compare models with (i) socioeconomic variables, (ii) the composite social vulnerability index (SoVI), and (iii) flood intensity variables only. The SoVI explains a larger portion of the variance in death (AIC = 2829) and damage (R2 = 0.125) than flood intensity alone (death-AIC = 2894; damage-R2 = 0.089), and models with individual sociodemographic factors perform best (death-AIC = 2696; damage-R2 = 0.229). Socioeconomic variables correlated with death (rural counties with a high proportion of elderly and young) differ from those related to property damage (rural counties with high percentage of Black, Hispanic and Native American populations below the poverty line). Results confirm that social vulnerability influences death and damage from floods in the USA. Model results indicate that social vulnerability models related to specific hazards and outcomes perform better than generic social vulnerability indices (e.g., SoVI) in predicting non-coastal flood death and damage. Hazard- and outcome-specific indices could be used to better direct efforts to ameliorate flood death and damage towards the people and places that need it most. Future validation studies should examine other flood outcomes, such as evacuation, migration and health, across scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number6006
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Death
  • Flooding
  • Property damage
  • Social vulnerability
  • USA
  • Validation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment


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