Source: istock


Evading disaster through managed retreat

The upcoming wildfire season in the West is predicted to be extremely intense and will likely result in mass evacuations and power shut-offs. With climate change, intense wildfire seasons, as well as recurring flooding and severe storms, will likely increasingly disrupt lives across the country. In areas with the most frequent and costliest damage, communities are adapting to their new reality by choosing to move people and assets out of harm’s way. The federal government can better support these extremely vulnerable communities in relocating by providing stronger leadership and support for managed retreat.

Typically, federal action on disaster resilience is reactionary rather than preventative, meaning federal funds are often disbursed after a disaster has already occurred. This creates a high-pressure timeline where the need to quickly rebuild critical infrastructure overshadows future risk reduction. With little incentive to build back more resiliently, states, cities, and communities will often rebuild in the same risky areas, putting lives in danger when the inevitable next disaster strikes.

Managed retreat offers a unique opportunity to correct this flaw by supporting the intentional movement of people away from vulnerable areas entirely, maximizing risk protection while minimizing future recurring costs. Managed retreat is now primarily enabled federally through programs that offer “buy-backs,” such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Community Development Block Grant program. Those federal agencies provide funding for state agencies, local governments, or tribal governments to purchase certain properties from homeowners, typically for the pre-disaster value of their home. This enables homeowners to relocate, preferably to areas of lower risk.

Both federal and subnational governments have already enabled managed retreat buybacks in several locations, including California, Louisiana, New Jersey, and New York, to varying degrees of success, though often in limited scope. Moving forward, it will be critical for the United States, and other nations, to get this policy right. The Biden administration has already started an encouraging process to improve the nation’s approach to managed retreat and should consider several recommendations as part of its efforts.

A federal framework for managed retreat is a critical missing link in current federal retreat management. This framework should provide clear guidance to relevant agencies, including FEMA and HUD, states, and tribes on the managed retreat process from start to finish. This ranges from general criteria to determine whether a community would benefit from relocation to guidelines for selecting satisfactory relocation sites after acquiring property. This should prioritize a bottom-up approach, relying heavily on state and local inputs. Every retreat will have its own unique challenges, and those who experience those challenges daily will best know how to overcome them.

Building a stronger federal foundation for retreat also involves expanding existing pre-disaster mitigation programs. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan aims to do that by increasing funding for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure & Communities (BRIC) program (previously the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program) and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. These pre-disaster grant programs support infrastructure projects in vulnerable communities and have historically funded buybacks. Congress should pair these funding increases with internal agency strategy shifts and rule changes that promote greater participation rates and shorten funding timelines for retreat.

Agencies can expand and amend federal grant programs to better accommodate retreat, as well. For example, a presidential disaster declaration must be in place to unlock much of the post-disaster federal funding for managed retreat. This requirement has kept a small Yup’ik village in Newtok, Alaska from moving people to safe ground. The community has struggled to obtain managed retreat funding as the Ninglick River encroaches on their village due to thawed permafrost. Because erosion isn’t a temporary, distinct disaster more likely to draw a disaster declaration, the village has fought an extensive, uphill battle for more than 20 years to relocate the community. Other continual events like sea level rise and recurrent coastal flooding, both becoming major drivers of displacement, would also likely not draw a Presidential disaster declaration.

Better data collection and evaluations of past and current retreat efforts would enhance any improvement to existing programs. Despite the many communities that have used federal funding for relocation, researchers and program administrators don’t understand the broader patterns emerging from existing buy-back programs.

  • Are individuals actually moving to areas of lower risk? This analysis found 20% of Staten Island buyout participants moved to areas with the same or higher risk of coastal flood hazards, and all but 2 participants moved to areas of higher poverty.
  • Does the post-retreat land use plan affect homeowners’ willingness to leave? A separate study on Staten Island buy-out participants found that homeowners were more in favor of buy-outs and relocation if their abandoned property would be used to re-establish natural prevention, like wetlands, rather than re-developed.
  • Are retreat programs and their requirements reaching vulnerable communities, or are they exacerbating existing inequalities? For example, with buy-outs focusing exclusively on homeowners, renters are left out and potentially at risk for further displacement.

Formal ex-post evaluations of federal retreat initiatives can expand on these findings and contribute to valuable program improvements in equity and effectiveness.

On that note, it’s critical to consider how managed retreat and buybacks interplay with broader policies, such as public housing availability and federal tribe recognition. This means assessing what makes a community most vulnerable to climate and disaster risk and addressing the root causes of that vulnerability.

Finally, while federal buybacks play an important role in managed retreat today, it is worth looking for solutions beyond existing programs. Creativity and innovation will drive the way forward for new approaches that can be more effective than the ones we’ve already tried, such as land swaps, especially as climate risks worsen. Regardless of future innovations, recent Biden administration actions are a sign that the federal government will better support future climate migration planning. Congress, subnational governments, and international actors should take note and continue increasing their focus on better approaches to managed retreat. A rapidly changing world demands it.