The case for ‘Managed Retreat’
By Yuliya Panfil
Millions of Americans are about to lose their homes to climate change. In a matter of decades, more than half of the land area of Hoboken, N.J., almost half of Galveston, Texas, and almost two-thirds of Miami Beach, Fla., will become uninhabitable due to sea level rise. The Union of Concerned Scientists warns that up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, more than 300,000 homes worth a combined $117.5 billion are at risk of chronic tidal flooding in the next 30 years. And that’s likely an underestimate: A major report released in June shows that federal flood maps underestimate the number of homes and businesses at risk of flooding by a stunning 67 percent.
As a result, what once seemed like a far-fetched scenario — asking Americans to move away from homes in climate-impacted areas — has begun percolating into the mainstream. In a Democratic primary debate last December, moderator Tim Alberta of POLITICO asked the candidates whether they would support a federal program to subsidize the relocation of American families and businesses away from places like Miami or Paradise, Calif. It was a question that had never come up on a debate stage before, and only one candidate gave a direct answer.
Although Washington doesn’t call it “managed retreat,” the U.S. government has been quietly relocating vulnerable residents for decades through post-storm property buyout programs.
This is how it usually happens. In the wake of a declared disaster by the president, local governments elect to offer homeowners with damaged properties the predisaster value of their home to skip the rebuilding process and instead, move to safer ground. The federal government usually provides three quarters of the funding — via the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Department of Housing and Urban Development — and state and local governments administer the programs and fund the balance. Municipalities determine which residents are eligible based on the amount of damage their homes have sustained, and how vulnerable they are to a repeat. In some instances, municipalities will sweeten the pot by providing extra funding if all homeowners within a designated area participate together. From 1989 to 2017, FEMA funded more than 43,000 voluntary buyouts across 49 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.