Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Considering Relocation as a Mitigation Strategy

The increased frequency of high-impact storms has made coastal living more dangerous and expensive than ever before. Traditional “hard” coastal mitigation measures, such as seawall construction and property elevation, cannot be deployed at the scale or speed necessary to provide protection from the significant adverse impacts sea level rise and inland flooding are expected to deliver. This impediment is largely due to the cost-prohibitive nature of such projects; a recent study placed the total cost of coastal defense systems at $400 billion by 2040, with one state alone, Florida, requiring $76 billion in spending. New efforts in mitigation planning – specifically those focused on relocation – can work to effectively mitigate the threats posed by climate change while providing absolute risk reduction and financial benefits to participants.

Property Acquisitions from Vulnerable Areas

Managed retreat, or the intentional, community-wide relocation of individuals from vulnerable areas, represents a paradigm shift in mitigation planning. It emphasizes absolute risk elimination over smaller mitigation strategies through processes like community relocation, property demolition, conversion into open space, and subsequent preservation. Unlike buyout/acquisition programs that focus on individual properties, managed retreat looks at managing vulnerable areas collectively at the community level, often through a clustered approach. While this shift may appear to be new, supporting community-based solutions have been around for a long time under the guise of federal buyout and acquisition programs.

These programs have been operational since 1989, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) first began voluntarily acquiring private properties and parcels through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). The program was greatly expanded in 1993, when Congress amended the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) to increase the federal cost-sharing capability from 50 percent to 75 percent and increased the maximum amount of funding available to states each year. Since HMGP’s expansion, FEMA has spent more than $2.5 billion on property acquisitions and subsequent demolitions; this amount is inclusive of buyouts and acquisitions that have been sponsored by FEMA’s HMGP, as well as its Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) and Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) programs. In 2018 alone, more than $36 million was spent on property acquisitions. A great majority of this funding supported buyout programs in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence, while much of the rest helped the Midwest recover after devastating tornadoes and floods.

Prime examples of buyout success can be seen in Montgomery County and Harris County, Texas. Since 1995, more than 3,100 properties have been successfully acquired through these county buyout programs These buyouts cost over $342 million and represent more than 41% of local mitigation dollars spent. While this number appears to be incredibly high, the underlying rationale is entirely logical: land is comparatively cheap in these counties, and the benefits, both to the property owners and their neighbors, are readily apparent. After Hurricane Harvey, for example, more than 3,500 residents submitted voluntary applications to the Program to support flood control and hazard mitigation efforts. The transparency of the Program’s administrators – who have emphasized that buyouts do not provide immediate recovery assistance – has only helped the success of the Program.

Available Federal Funding Programs

Although FEMA supports a majority of the property acquisitions, they may also be sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program, where there is a programmatic emphasis on equity. One powerful example of this approach emerges from the Oakwood Beach community in New York City’s (NYC’s) Staten Island. Staten Island’s southeastern shores were heavily impacted during Hurricane Sandy; the topography of the Lower Bay turned Staten Island into a funnel for storm surge, leading to 14 feet of flooding in some areas. Having lived through the devastation, many residents sought state assistance made available through federal coffers to relocate, rather than rebuild.

Congress appropriated $16 billion in CDBG-DR funds to support long-term recovery efforts in New York State. These monies were used to sponsor a multitude of programs, including the NY Rising Buyout and Acquisition Program. Thus far, the program has supported the acquisition and subsequent conversion of more than 300 parcels of land into wetlands, costing approximately $120 million. Approximately 99 percent of Oakwood Beach residents wound up submitting applications for the buyout programs.

It is important to consider the financial benefits associated with Staten Island’s managed retreat initiative, especially in the context of increasingly frequent and impactful storms. As analysis by the Regional Plan Association found that Oakwood Beach residents could save an average of $5.7 million annually through lessened damage and relocation costs, as well as $817,000 in flood insurance premium savings. Although NYC did experience a loss in its tax revenue as a result of the Staten Island program, the numbers were marginal and represented less than 0.01 percent of NYC’s annual budget.

Managing Outcomes

Relocation has the opportunity to help more than just coastal communities mitigate, and perhaps avoid, the devastating impacts of disasters. Take wildfires, for example. Approximately one third of the United States (US) population is located in the wildland-urban interface, an area where wildland vegetation interfaces with the local community. The proximity of both people and infrastructure to such readily available fodder greatly increases the wildfire potential and has led some to argue that it should inspire a preventative relocation. Other possible methods of implementation include tribal communities subject to permafrost thaw and those living in areas of extreme heat.

While relocation has proven successful in some cases, it may not be always be the right answer. Social infrastructure and networks can begin to erode, and there is no assurance that the beneficiaries of relocation will move to areas that increase their resilience in the long run. In fact, many buyout participants actually become more vulnerable than they were before a disaster when they choose to relocate within their zip code. Perhaps most importantly, these programs are notoriously slow to enact and require huge amounts of capital to be successful.

FEMA and HUD buyout and acquisition programs are also buttressed by state and local funding opportunities. Regardless of funding agency or source, programs often have complex compliance requirements, aggressive completion timelines, significant impact on homeowners, and financial penalty for non-compliance. As such, it is important to leverage past experience and supplement local knowledge and capacity with subject matter expertise familiar with these programs. Hagerty’s experts are ready to help: check here for more information on Hazard Mitigation Assistance, or visit our Recovery home page.

Will Brown is an associate at Hagerty Consulting, Inc. supporting project delivery with the Preparedness division in NYC. Will previously worked on NYC’s Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) project, supporting data collection and analysis, as well as communications efforts for the City of Panama City’s Long-Term Recovery Planning project. Will recently received his M.S. in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.