SEL & Climate Change: Responding to a Flood

In the closing days of 2015, some of the highest flood waters ever recorded hit the Mississippi River valley. This activity encourages students to empathize with flood victims, and to consider how we as individuals and as a community can best respond to floods and other climate change-related disasters.  

Note to Teacher:  

Morningside Center aims to help young people develop the social and emotional skills we all need to take on climate change  - including empathy, critical thinking, problem-solving, team-building and cooperation.  We welcome your ideas and feedback on this and future lessons!  Please send us an email at:  And please share with friends and colleagues.



Remember a time when you got needed help from someone, perhaps after an accident or injury.  How did it feel when you got the help you needed?

The Mississippi River Floods

Read aloud or summarize the following, which is based on New York Times reporting on the flood. 

December 28, 2015, west of St. Louis, Missouri:   After three days of heavy rain, Linda was starting to worry that her home would be flooded.  She could actually see flood waters from the river creeping into the woods near her house. And she heard the news reports warning that a flood of historic proportions was hitting the whole Mississippi River valley, and heading her way.
But she didn’t want to believe she’d actually have to abandon her home.  The last big flood hadn’t touched her house. Maybe it wouldn’t this time either.  It wasn’t until she heard water gurgling under her mobile home that she finally realized she had to go. She packed up some of her most precious belongings and went to the Red Cross shelter, which had been set up at a Baptist Church in the area.
"I didn’t realize I was going to lose everything," she said.
In the closing days of 2015, some of the highest flood waters ever recorded hit the Mississippi River valley.  Whole neighborhoods and towns had to be evacuated, and many homes and businesses were damaged beyond repair.  Millions of people had their lives disrupted, and 22 lost their lives as a result of the flooding.

Many of the low-lying areas around the Mississippi River have always been prone to flooding, but the floods have gotten more and more frequent and severe, in part because of climate change.  Climate change, which is caused largely by our burning of fossil fuels, warms the atmosphere, which leads to violent changes in the weather, including torrential rains.

This is raising big questions about the future for individuals like Linda: How will they respond to the repeated flooding of the place they call home? And how should all the rest of us - their friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens - help people like Linda who are threatened or hurt by climate change?  What help would we ourselves hope get from others if we were hit with a similar climate change disaster? 


Scenarios for Small Groups

Ask students to break into small groups of four or five and to sit in a circle.


Round One: Linda

Ask students to imagine that they are Linda:  Picture yourself in the Red Cross Shelter, surrounded by the few objects you were able to save from your home before it was completely submerged. You have some home insurance, but it won’t come close to covering the cost of building a new home or buying another one.

  • What are you feeling? What are you thinking? 

Give the groups 4 minutes to respond to the question in a go-round.  After the go-round, ask students to volunteer some of their responses, and record them on the board.


Round Two:  Linda’s friend

Imagine that you are a friend of Linda’s who lives nearby. Your home was not flooded.

  • How will you help Linda? Will this be hard for you? Will it be rewarding?

Give the groups 4 minutes to respond to the question in a go-round. After the go-round, ask students to volunteer some of their responses, and record them on the board.


Round Three: Linda’s community

Imagine that you live in Linda’s community, though you don’t know her. Your home wasn’t flooded, but you know several people who had to evacuate their homes, have lost their possessions and are staying in the local Red Cross shelter.

  • How will you help Linda, either as an individual, or through an organization you are part of?

Give the groups 4 minutes to respond to the question in a go-round. After the go-round, ask students to volunteer some of their responses, and record them on the board.


Round Four: Government (all of us)

Before beginning this go-round, provide the following background.

Historically, government agencies at all levels have responded to "natural disasters" like floods by first rescuing people or moving them to safety, and then by supporting clean-up and the rebuilding of homes and communities.  This help is provided by all of us, through taxes we pay to the government.  One agency that is key in responding to disasters is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.  FEMA says that its mission is to "ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards."

There have long been questions about whether government should fund the rebuilding of homes and communities in locations that are prone to flooding or other disasters.  This question has gotten more urgent now that climate change is causing more and more such disasters.  We know that some parts of the country, including low-lying coastal areas and many river valleys, are very likely to face repeated catastrophic flooding in the years to come.

But denying people the right to rebuild in the same location - or refusing to provide funds for rebuilding - means that we as a society are forcing people to abandon their communities, places where many people have lived for a lifetime.

Ask students to address, in a go-round,

  • How do you think our government should help people like Linda, whose homes are damaged or destroyed, and who are living in areas that are prone to catastrophic flooding because of climate change?

Give the groups 4 minutes to respond to the question in a go-round.  Reconvene the whole class and tell students we’ll discuss their responses as a group.



Discussion: Being Strategic about How We Help

Ask the full class:

  • By a show of hands, do you think our government should help people rebuild in areas that are almost certain to flood again, especially given climate change? Ask for a volunteer from each position to give a reason for their opinion.
  • If government does not support rebuilding in communities prone to disaster, how should government support those  who lose their homes in these disasters?
  • Some people think that it isn’t government’s role to help individuals recover from disasters at all.  What do you think of this view?  What consequences do you think it would have on the rest of us if we did not provide support for those who are left homeless by climate disruption?
  • People who are low-income are generally hardest hit by climate change because they have less money to protect themselves from it or to recover from its impacts if they are hit.  What can we as a people do to address this inequality?
  • Sometimes people feel more empathetic and are more willing to help those whom they perceive as being more like themselves.   Do you think these reactions should govern how we as a people respond to climate change?
  • Although we often still refer to floods and other climate change-related events as "natural disasters," they are often mostly "human-made disasters."  How should this knowledge affect the way we respond to disasters like the Mississippi River valley flood?




In a go-round, ask students:

  • What is one strength or quality you have that would be useful if your community was hit by a flood or other climate change-related disaster?



Extension Activity

Ask students to read this New York Times article about Valmeyer, IL, a town near the Mississippi River that completely relocated itself  after the "Great Flood of 1993."

Then, as homework, ask them research how Valmeyer is doing today. 

In the next class, ask students:

  • What impact did the move have on Valmeyer?
  • What qualities or strengths did the people of Valmeyer have that helped them adapt to climate change?
  • What if anything do you think we can learn from Valmeyer’s experience, given that more floods and other climate change-related disasters are likely?