Mapping Coastal Risks and Social Vulnerability: Current Tools and Legal Risks

From North Carolina Sea Grant, this publication is designed for local government officials considering social vulnerability in coastal communities dealing with extreme weather events and increased flooding. Mapping Coastal Risks and Social Vulnerability: Current Tools and Legal Risks outlines available data sets for social vulnerability, their current and potential use, and the associated legal risks in using that information for climate adaptation planning.

Sections II and III of this paper describe the major mapping tools that currently exist which incorporate social vulnerability, and how those tools could work with current programs and planning efforts.

Understand how social vulnerability mapping may be viewed by the courts and how to avoid legal strict scrutiny review. 

The potential use of vulnerability mapping with current FEMA programs is discussed. FEMA funding programs that may support vulnerability mapping are considered in the categories of:

  1. Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grants
  2. Hazard Mitigation Grants
  3. Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants

Vulnerability mapping to aid local governments in disaster planning is also analyzed. The paper explains that maps can be used to determine populations that may need significant assistance during evacuations, which in turn will enable the community to be more resilient by planning to get all citizens out of harm’s way.

In addition, several ways that vulnerability can be measured through the development of data portals is discussed for the: NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer; Surging Seas sea level rise analysis by Climate Central; and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Location Affordability Portal.   

According to the report, much of the underlying data used to determine social vulnerability includes race or ethnicity as a factor, which raises legal concerns primarily based on the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The paper discusses the equal protection analysis framework and the potential legal challenges associated with using race as a factor in in making decisions based on maps or other decision-support tools that include social vulnerability criteria.

Regarding the identification of vulnerability within communities by race, the paper describes the “strict scrutiny” law and judicial review for government actions using race.  It is followed by details on how agencies have used vulnerability mapping in ways that may avoid legal strict scrutiny review, as well as provides recommendations for how to avoid strict scrutiny concerns in vulnerability mapping. 

After outlining the equal protection analysis framework and potential legal issues in Sections V and VI, the paper concludes with recommendations for how social vulnerability can be integrated into planning and other activities.


Publication Date: April 27, 2015

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Lisa Schiavinato
  • Heather Payne

Related Organizations:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Legal Analysis
  • Mapping tool
  • Tool (general)


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