A Different Approach to Managing Climate Displacement

As climate-driven flooding and storms put increasing pressure on coastal communities, some say the piecemeal nature of federal recovery and mitigation efforts aren’t cutting it.

2 minute read

December 14, 2023, 6:00 AM PST

By Mary Hammon @marykhammon


White house surrounded by several inches of tidal floodwaters.

Tidal flooding in Tangier, Virginia. | U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Coastal communities are increasingly threatened by sea level rise and severe weather events. As a growing number of residents face the decision to stay or go, experts are calling for a more comprehensive, coordinated response to recovery, resilience, and buyouts.

“[M]any hundreds of communities in the US could soon be facing the same heart-wrenching choice. Even under optimistic scenarios, scientists predict that by 2100 some 4.2 million Americans across 500 coastal communities will experience ‘disruptive inundation,’” Timothy Shuler reports a reporter for Next City. That’s the case for residents in Oyster, Virginia, where sea level has risen by a foot and a half. 

The financial strain of flood damage—expected to jump by 30 percent by 2050 from $9.4 billion today to $12.8 billion for federally backed mortgages, according to the Congressional Budget office—combined with patchy federal preparedness and response programs that often disproportionately disadvantage low-income and BIPOC communities, have led some experts to ask if a entirely new federal entity is necessary. Some are proposing “a department that could plan and coordinate the challenging process of relocation and adaptation known as managed retreat.” 

Creating a single agency would avoid the siloed and conflicting responses after major disasters, such as after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency began funding floodplain buyouts in Princeville, North Carolina at the same time the US Army Corps of Engineers was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a plan to better protect the town and the state was pushing community-wide relocation. 

“There’s no thread that connects the investment [of a buyout] to something that is actually meaningful. There’s nothing that follows the dot all the way through,” Kate Orff, faculty director of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes told CityLab. She said what’s needed “is a program that actually looks more synthetically at how all of these things come together.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2023 in Bloomberg CityLab

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