Identification and Engagement of Socially Vulnerable Populations in the USACE Decision Making Process

From the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) Institute for Water Resources, this primer provides guidance on better identifying and engaging with individuals and groups of people who are more vulnerable to floods based on socioeconomic factors such as lack of access to education, adequate housing, economic resources, health care, and strong social networks. The report provides strategies, tools, and examples of how to work with these vulnerable populations, stressing how active community engagement can actually lead to better decision making around water resources.  In addition to the general guidance, it looks at how USACE’s Dam and Levee Safety Program can better address and engage socially vulnerable population.

The primer defines the key characteristics of vulnerable populations to include: age (elderly and young); low-income status; language other than English spoken at home, limited access to transportation, inadequate housing, low educational attainment, ethnic minority, and physically and mentally challenged.  Socially vulnerable people must be considered in USACE policies around water resources given that this group may confront added challenges and need additional resources. For example, socially vulnerable residents may face more difficulty evacuating.

To address the unique risks faced by socially vulnerable people, the primer draws on USACE’s six step planning methodology and makes suggestions of how community engagement should be part of each step:

  1. USACE must first understand the problem and opportunities by working with target populations directly, since otherwise it is difficult to fully grasp the challenges these groups face and the potential opportunities to overcome those challenges.
  2. USACE should inventory socioeconomic information to understand the historic, baseline, and possible future social conditions. The primer explains that this might involve a combination of demographic statistics, focus groups, expert panels, and community workshops.
  3. USACE should work with stakeholders to formulate potential solutions. This might take the form of workshops, public meetings, and surveys.
  4. USACE should evaluate the options based on the feedback they received from socially vulnerable populations, specifically considering how the plan will effect the socially vulnerable.
  5. USACE compares the potential plans asking how the plans’ effects compare in regards to socially vulnerable populations.
  6. Finally, they should select the plan that avoids or minimizes negative social effects, especially for socially vulnerable populations.

Chapter 4 looks at USACE’s Dam and Levee Safety Program. It lists a number of questions USACE should consider to identify the populations at risk. In addition to more general questions, it suggests that USACE consider if there is a delay in time it takes from when a threat is identified to when a warning is issued, and if that warning reaches all populations fairly. USACE should also consider how long it will take various individuals to mobilize and respond to that warning. Another consideration is the consequences of the impact, such a loss of life, economic damages, and environmental impacts of the hazard for various populations.

Chapter 5 provides more information on available tools and links to those tools, including both USACE tools and other federal resources. USACE is utilizing the Social Vulnerability Index (SOVI) tool that assesses the relative social vulnerability of a place given its exposure to a hazard. A Corps-specific version of the tool (SOVI-eXplorer) is being developed as part of their Geospatial Portal, to better understand the social impacts of hazard exposure. 

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Chris Baker
  • Seth Cohen
  • Gigi Coulson
  • Susan Durden
  • Ed Rossman

Related Organizations:

Related Toolkits:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Planning guides


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