Sweeping study raises questions about who benefits from buyouts of flood-prone homes

A flood-prone area of Houston where houses have been bought out with help from the federal government is now an empty field. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

A flood-prone area of Houston where houses have been bought out with help from the federal government is now an empty field. (Claire Harbage/NPR)

A broad analysis of federal records finds that homeowners hoping to relocate out of flood zones in the U.S. don’t have equal access to the main source of federal funding meant to help them.

The study looked at more than 40,000 records for flood-prone homes that have been purchased by local governments with the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency since the late 1980s. Such voluntary buyouts of flood-prone properties are an important policy tool to move people out of harm’s way, especially as climate change drives sea level rise and more extreme rain in many parts of the U.S.

But homeowners can pursue a buyout only if their local government has set up the program through FEMA. This study found that not all flood-prone communities are able to do that.

“We found that the counties that administer buyouts on average have higher income and population density,” says Carolien Kraan, a graduate student at the University of Miami and one of the study’s authors.

Previous studies have found similar patterns with respect to wealth, and an NPR investigation earlier this year revealed that federally funded home buyouts have disproportionately gone to whiter communities. (Search the database of FEMA buyouts here.)

One reason that wealthier counties might be receiving more buyouts is that it requires significant bureaucratic and monetary resources to apply for and distribute buyout funds. FEMA generally pays for 75% of the cost of a home, so local and state governments must find the remaining money elsewhere.

“Homeowners who want to relocate cannot apply to FEMA directly. They rely on their local government to apply on their behalf,” explains A.R. Siders of the University of Delaware, who is one of the study authors. “If their local government doesn’t have those resources, you’re going to have people who are trapped in these at-risk places.”

“Without public support, it’s clear that many people will be left without sufficient resources to move out of harm’s way,” says Liz Koslov, who studies how communities decide to relocate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and reviewed the study before it was published Tuesday in the journal Science Advances.

Siders notes that wealthier, denser parts of the country receive a lot of attention for how they react to flooding, but that smaller, poorer places are also trying to cope with flood risk.

“We talk a lot about buyouts that have happened in New York or Houston or Charlotte. But what about all the small towns along the coast in New York state or along the coast of Texas or Mississippi or Louisiana?” Siders says. “What about places that don’t have dedicated planners, who don’t have the resources to make the 25% match with FEMA? Their homeowners may need just as much or more help in relocating away from risk.”

The study’s authors point out that wealthier, denser areas also are more likely to have options beyond relocation.

“If you think about a place like South Florida, there are enormous amounts of wealth,” explains Miyuki Hino, a researcher at Stanford who also is one of the authors of the study. “That also provides a tax base where they can find a lot of money to invest in pumps, beach nourishment, things other than buyouts.”

The study also found that the number of buyouts in coastal communities is increasing. In the 1990s, most of the homes purchased by the government were in the Midwest, in flood-prone areas along major rivers. Today, sea level rise is driving more flooding in coastal communities.

Junia Howell, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies relocation, equity and disasters, says the study’s findings raise some important questions that need to be answered as soon as possible, given how climate change is driving increased flood risk.

“Big picture, long-term, if we are evacuating, basically, disinvested communities within wealthy counties, then where are those people ending up living?” Howell says. “What does it mean for the rural, less-dense counties that aren’t getting any [flood] mitigation or flood buyouts? Long-term, how is that shaping lives and economic opportunities?”

In short: “Who is benefiting from these buyouts, how are they benefiting?”

Those are questions no one has yet been able to answer in broad terms. The authors of the study say they are pursuing further research about those topics, but they also call on the larger community of sociologists, urban planners, climate scientists and local officials to aggressively study the policies that help — or demand that — people retreat from flood-prone areas.

“We need to know more,” Siders says. “There’s a lot of talk about scaling up [buyouts] … and that’s encouraging because people are considering managed retreat, and they’re taking floods and storms and protection of future communities very seriously.”

But, she adds, “It’s also a little concerning, because we don’t know what has worked and what hasn’t in the past buyouts.”

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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