Publication Date

Fall 2022

Degree Type

Master's Project

Degree Name

Master of Public Administration (MPA)


Urban and Regional Planning

First Advisor

Frances Edwards


Crisis Communications, Flooding, Public Alert and Warning Systems


Public alert and warning systems are crucial tools that save lives and protect property in times of emergencies. In the past several decades, natural disasters have struck the nation, and effective public alerts and warnings were not disseminated to all impacted populations, calling into question the effectiveness of emergency communication systems (Wimberley, 2012).

As an example, in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, public alert and warning systems reached those who had access to technological devices. However, emergency managers and alerting authorities faced the challenge of alerting all groups, including the homeless and individuals with access and functional needs, who may not have access to traditional communication methods like television and radio broadcast stations, cell phones, or landlines. In addition, individuals who experience language barriers and limited English language proficiency struggle to fully understand public alerts (Wimberly, 2012).

Locally, emergency and disaster communications have also left some of the most vulnerable populations behind. In 2017, the Coyote Creek flood in Santa Clara County devastated the City of San José. The flooding disproportionately impacted several low-income communities and households with little English proficiency, and there was limited communication between the agencies involved and the communities affected (Wadsworth et al., 2017; Wadsworth and Koehn, 2017). A history of inadequate emergency communications and floodplain mismanagement, and a lack of communication between the City of San José and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, contributed to the disaster (Rogers, 2017), and in February 2017, two consecutive atmospheric rivers led to severe flooding. The Anderson Dam, which is a reservoir, not a flood control dam, - had reached capacity and began to overflow. This event forced 14,000 residents out of their homes, with little time to evacuate (Rogers, 2017). By July 2017, there were still an estimated 200 residents that had not been able to return to their homes and were living in temporary housing (Sykes, 2017). The flooding was particularly devastating in low-income Vietnamese and Hispanic households, and mobile home parks, where there were many senior citizens and/or people with limited English proficiency (Wadsworth et al., 2017; Wadsworth and Koehn, 2017). Improved emergency communications could have provided an opportunity to warn residents and provide notice about the evacuation in multiple languages, which could have potentially avoided the substantial property damage, and the emotional distress caused by prolonged displacement (Alexander, 2020; Sykes, 2017). Drawing from these disasters, this research analyzed how four Bay Area counties issue public warnings, with a particular focus on how they engaged vulnerable populations during crisis communication. By exploring this facet of crisis communication, this research proposes potential solutions to improve communication and engagement with vulnerable populations.