To understand the spatiotemporal changes of flood risk, we need to determine the way in which humans adapt and respond to flood events. One adaptation option consists of resettling away from flood-prone areas to prevent or reduce future losses. We use satellite nighttime light data to discern the relationship between long-term changes in human proximity to rivers and the occurrence of catastrophic flood events. Moreover, we explore how these relationships are influenced by different levels of structural flood protection. We found that societies with low protection levels tend to resettle further away from the river after damaging flood events. Conversely, societies with high protection levels show no significant changes in human proximity to rivers. Instead, such societies continue to rely heavily on structural measures, reinforcing flood protection and quickly resettling in flood-prone areas after a flooding event. Our work reveals interesting aspects of human adaptation to flood risk and offers key insights for comparing different risk reduction strategies. In addition, this study provides a framework that can be used to further investigate human response to floods, which is relevant as urbanization of floodplains continues and puts more people and economic assets at risk.