U.S. flood strategy shifts to ‘unavoidable’ relocation of entire neighborhoods
By Christopher Flavelle
Using tax dollars to move whole communities out of flood zones, an idea long dismissed as radical is swiftly becoming policy, marking a new and more disruptive phase of climate change.
This month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency detailed a new program, worth an initial $500 million, with billions more to come, designed to pay for large-scale relocation nationwide. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has started a similar $16 billion program. That followed a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to start telling local officials that they must agree to force people out of their homes or forfeit federal money for flood-protection projects.
Even the word “retreat,” with its connotations of defeat, sits uncomfortably with American ideals of self-reliance and expansion. “‘Managed retreat’ is giving up. That’s un-American,” said Karen O’Neill, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, in explaining why the concept seemed unthinkable until recently.
The latest evidence of the shift toward relocation came this month when FEMA made public the details of its new grant program. As with the new HUD program, one-way cities and states can use the money is for “larger-scale migration or relocation.” Rather than just buying and demolishing a handful of individual homes, the agency told state and local officials to consider how they would protect whole communities from future harm.
The program, which also pays for building codes, new infrastructure and other projects, “is a transformational opportunity to change the way the nation invests in resilience,” said David Maurstad, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation. “FEMA can now support communities with investing in much larger-scale mitigation efforts.”
In Louisiana, officials describe a new willingness to plan for pulling back from the coast.
“That’s not a conversation that we were comfortable having, as a state or as a series of vulnerable communities, say, five years ago,” said Mathew Sanders, the resilience policy and program administrator at Louisiana’s Office of Community Development. “It’s now a conversation that we can have.”