Government-funded buyouts after disasters are slow and inequitable – here's how that could change
Posted by admin on 19th October 2018

Destructive storms like Hurricanes Florence and Michael prompt difficult conversations about whether to rebuild or retreat. Retreat is an established part of U.S. flood management: Government agencies have been paying people to move out of harm’s way for several decades. But the process is flawed and needs to be improved.

Across the United States, “repetitive loss properties” that have been damaged and rebuilt multiple times using federal flood insurance payouts have cost the government, and taxpayers, more than US$12.1 billion. And the challenge is growing. Rising seas due to climate change may inundate 400 to 1,100 U.S. coastal cities in this century, affecting some 4 to 13 million Americans.

Sometimes the surest way to keep people safe is to relocate them out of the floodplain, a process called managed or strategic retreat. But when I reviewed some of the largest retreat programs in the United States, I found that the process is much less straightforward or fair than it should be. I also found ways to improve it.

Workers prepare a home for demolition in Spanish Grant, Texas, April 14, 2010, as part of a buyout program in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
FEMA/Patsy Lynch

Thousands of buyouts over 25 years

Since 1993, FEMA has spent just over $4 billion to buy roughly 40,000 homes in 1,100 communities across 44 states. The buildings are demolished and the land is required to be maintained as open space, perhaps a park or a wetland to absorb future flood waters. Other federal agencies also fund buyouts.

Some whole communities have relocated. They include midwest river towns such as Pattonsburg, Missouri, Valmeyer, Illinois and Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin. According to one 2017 report, 17 U.S. communities – mainly Native American – are in the process of relocating from low-lying islands and coastal areas to avoid flooding. Overall, FEMA does not have enough funding for buyouts to meet demand.

I recently reviewed eight of the largest U.S. buyout efforts to see how officials decided which homes to buy. It was a question I’d encountered while living in New York City during and after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. More than 2,500 people in New York City and state expressed interest in receiving buyouts, but only a few hundred received offers. I wanted to know why.