Rich Neighborhoods More Likely To Get Federal Flood Relief

Homeowners in flood-prone wealthy areas have a much better chance of receiving a government buyout than more vulnerable rural areas with lower-income residents, according to a study published last week.  The New York Times concluded that federal flood relief programs intended to help Americans move away from disaster-prone areas are skewed toward high-income communities, but that within those communities the funds are used to buy and tear down homes in poorer neighborhoods, raising issues of equity within those communities.

Why This Matters:  As climate change worsens, many areas in the U.S. have increasing exposure to its dangers.  And the study revealed that because “local officials must request federal funds for buyouts — and then successfully navigate a series of bureaucratic requirements — and wealthier jurisdictions are more likely to have the staff and expertise necessary to do that.”  Indeed, according to another recent paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council, it takes more than five years between the time a flood strikes and when Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) completes a buyout project.  These insights are important factors as policy changes are debated and implemented to better “manage retreat” and make the most of limited federal disaster dollars.

Climate Change Poses A High Risk To Economy As a Whole

Another key takeaway from the study, according to The Times, is that climate change could pose an even more severe risk to the housing market, and to the economy as a whole, than the recession of 2008.

Homeowners rely on their local government to apply for relief and the local government then determines which homeowners can participate in buyouts.  FEMA says that its grant programs are designed to capitalize on the in-depth knowledge that each county floodplain manager has regarding the needs of their communities.

Flood Prone States

The authors of the study looked at all 43,000 homes that the FEMA has bought and demolished in flood-prone areas since 1989.

  • The six states with the most bought-out properties — Missouri, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, Iowa, and New Jersey — are all among the top 10 states for cumulative flood-related property damage over the same time frame, in total or per capita.
  • However, not all states with high flood-related damages have prioritized buyouts — Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi have the most cumulative flood-related property damage, but they rank 23, 18, and 21, respectively, for statewide property buyouts.

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