More and More, Federal Government Sees Relocating People to Higher Ground “Unavoidable”

Port Arthur, Texas after Hurricane Harvey      Photo: SC National Guard

The New York Times published a piece by Christopher Flavelle explaining that even though the Trump administration is skeptical of climate change, they are going forward to implement policies begun in the Obama Administration and expanded under Trump that are getting cities to move their residents out of flood-prone areas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are telling states to move people — even if the cities have to use eminent domain powers — if they want flood control assistance.

Why This Matters:  The evidence of increased flooding due to climate change is overwhelming.  Realtors know it, and the latest studies show the problem is bad and getting worse — and it is not just in coastal areas.  When Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang argued in favor of moving people to higher ground as an answer to the climate problem, many people thought it sounded extreme.  Not any more.  Since 2015, the government has spent half a trillion dollars on disaster response to storms like Laura.  The 2018 National Climate Assessment made clear that the need to retreat in some areas is “unavoidable.

Flooding Is Now A Huge Problem

In June,  we reported on a new analysis by First Street Foundation that found that as many as 14.6 million properties — nearly 70% more than are in FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Areas — may actually be at significant risk of flooding. The First Street Foundation’s data is broken down by zip code and anyone can look and see whether their home is prone to flooding.  Indeed, as we explained, FEMA’s flood data doesn’t account for many counties across the United States and in about 3,300 communities, the flood maps are more than 15 years old.  These old maps are out of date, particularly when climate change is factored in. In Houston, the First Street Foundation has gone one step farther and with the Houston Chronicle created “a powerful interactive tool that allows Houston Chronicle subscribers to see not only rainfall location and intensity, but real-time, continuously updated flooding alerts and street closures as storms sweep through the area.”  Flood information in real-time — BUT you have to subscribe to The Chronicle to get it.  The tool became available just a few weeks ago, just in time for Hurricane Laura.
It’s Not A Retreat, It’s Resilience
After Hurricane Sandy, according to The Times, the Obama Administration experimented with a program to buy and demolish large numbers of flooded homes on Staten Island and in New Jersey to create open space as a buffer during storms. But they did not know how to take it to scale nationwide.  After Hurricane Harvey caused $125B in damage in 2017, the government began to get serious about mitigation and preventing future damage by moving people away from vulnerable locations rather than pay to rebuild repeatedly.  Congress passed “carrot” programs that put money toward mitigation because it is much more effective than paying to rebuild, and some of that funding is being used on relocation.  But they also had a “stick” — the USACE began to require cities that wanted aid for flood control to use eminent domain to force people from their homes because they found that over the long run it was more affordable to purchase their homes than to build new infrastructure to protect them.

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