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Help Them See the Issue - Coastal Inundation

Help Them See the Issues

Communicating with visualizations is important to help others understand where inundation impacts could occur, and how inundation could affect the community. Different types of visualizations, along with several resources and examples of their uses, are presented below.


Animations can help in explaining complicated processes. Using a variety of software packages, users can create animations to show what tidal flooding processes may look like from the community perspective. This animation was developed to help communities understand and visualize the impacts of tidal flooding and learn how to prepare for future events.

Photos and Simulations

Photos and simulated photos of communities can be used to illustrate potential impacts and solutions. With programs such as CanVis, users can easily use photos to create scenarios to show how impacts, plans, and policies will look like on the ground. Simulated photos can be created in a group setting so that stakeholders can provide real-time input to the scenarios and see different options, empowering them to be part of the decision-making. Simulated photos can also be used in presentations to help build awareness. Stakeholders may feel more comfortable with something tangible, like printed photos, which can help groups discuss issues and explain ideas.

How One Community Used Simulated Photos in Floodplain Management Planning

Allison Hardin, a planner for the City of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, says that many coastal communities are dealing with how to manage development in the floodplain. CanVis enables community planners to show what a hiking path or a park may look like in a floodplain, an option that allows people to use the space but enables the floodplain to retain its water absorption capacities.


Maps communicate information about location, physical characteristics, relationships, and patterns. For example, a map showing areas that frequently flood is informative, but when neighborhoods and roads are added, it becomes more apparent how flooding could impact the community. View the map.

Digital spatial data, aerial photographs, and paper and hand-drawn maps are all examples of geospatial information that can be useful in conversations to communicate risk information and learn more about risks. Digital spatial data are helpful for displaying a lot of information, showing different perspectives, or querying.

Aerial photographs are helpful engagement resources because people can easily see familiar places. They can also see the extent of impacts, such as a breached levee and associated flooding in relation to their home, which is not always easily discernible from the ground.

Participatory or community mapping is the use of paper maps on which stakeholders draw or write to identify areas of importance and concern. This technique can be used to ground-truth and enhance existing digital spatial data. For example, participatory mapping is useful in ground-truthing flood hazard data, which is a valuable data set that can help a community identify where flooding may occur. However this data set also has limitations. It was created at one point in time and cannot account for all the changes the community has experienced. The Stakeholder Engagement Strategies for Participatory Mapping publication can be a helpful resource for participatory mapping.

Web-based maps and mapping applications offer new and more accessible ways of communicating using maps. Lightweight applications called story maps incorporate spatial data, photographs, and multimedia to help tell a story in a visual and understandable way for a wide range of audiences.

Story maps were used to support Great Lakes coastal community planners by helping to convey opportunities to enhance community resilience to coastal hazards. See story map examples for Sheboygan, Ozaukee, and Brown Counties in Wisconsin. These Web maps were developed in partnership with Esri using ESRI’s ArcGIS Online Web-based GIS technology and existing story map templates.


Graphs provide a visual way to explain cumbersome data in a more easily comprehensible format. Graphs are helpful to show historical trends. For example, graphing tidal gauge data can help community members and local officials see sea level trends and, in some regions, signs of sea level rise.

How One Municipality Is Using Graphs and Maps to Show the Potential Impacts of Sea Level Rise

The City of Charleston, South Carolina, currently experiences tidal flooding several times a year that causes many problems for residents and is expensive for the city. As part of its efforts to prepare for future conditions, the city wanted to know how sea level rise would intensify tidal flooding. The NOAA Office for Coastal Management developed a map showing current tidal flooding, as well as tidal flooding with a 0.5 meter rise in water. The map showed that tidal flooding would occur more often if sea level rose. The map was used in a South Carolina Sea Grant-lead focus group with city planners to discuss planned and potential infrastructure improvements, outreach and education strategies, and the need for additional communication products. See the communication product developed for the City of Charleston.

Why This Worked

Photos, along with graphs of historical tide gauge data showing sea level trends, provide city planners with more supporting information that enables them to more easily discuss potential future threats and impacts with local officials.

Two examples of tools that help in sharing large quantities of data and information in graphical formats are Coastal County Snapshots and the Land Cover Atlas.

With Coastal County Snapshots, decision makers can quickly see flood threats and potential impacts to people, places, and land cover for their county. Coastal County Snapshots has been used at meetings to help stakeholders better understand the threats and impacts.

Using the Land Cover Atlas, planners can show their stakeholders how land has changed over time. For example, seeing how many acres of wetlands are still available to provide protection against storm surge or flooding can help in prioritizing the actions necessary to address these issues.