Managed retreat, or the act of moving populations out of areas at risk of climate change-driven issues such as recurring floods or wildfires, is often discussed as if it’s an option that will only be necessary far in the future. But “voluntary buy-outs”—or, when property owners affected by severe storms, floods, hurricanes apply for their property to be bought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and converted into federal land—have been happening for decades.
A new study published in Science Advances today analyzed all 43,633 property buy-outs financed by the FEMA between 1989 and 2017 through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The study found that richer, more densely populated areas are actually more likely to implement voluntary buy-outs of flood prone areas than economically disadvantaged, rural areas.
“The finding may be indicative of the substantial human, financial, and other capacity required for a local government to implement a buyout,” the study says.
Katharine Mach, one of the lead authors of the study, noted that although the buyouts are happening in areas with higher household incomes and denser populations, “the buyouts themselves are taking place in neighborhoods with lower incomes.”
Even though poor neighborhoods within poor regions are also, at times, in need of voluntary buy-outs, the buy-outs are actually happening in poor neighborhoods in richer regions.
This Science Advances study turns the mainstream thinking around managed retreat on its head. Typically, the study points out, scholars have argued that rich, urban regions will use their hefty supply of taxpayer money to invest in “hard,” technological methods of climate adaptation, like seawalls or levies. Meanwhile, the thinking goes, more rural, economically-disadvantaged regions can rely on federal FEMA money to buy-out the most at risk areas. This line of thinking has fueled major criticisms of managed retreat: it may force indigenous or historically marginalized communities to dislocate from their land, while the rich can themselves buy out of it.
However, the Science Advances study points out that local governments are responsible for applying for, receiving, and distributing FEMA money to property-owners in 94 percent of cases.
This suggests that successful buy-outs are largely dependent on the bureaucratic capacities of local governments, not necessarily the places that are most at-risk of recurring water events.
For instance, the study states, although states like Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi have “the most cumulative flood-related property damage,” they aren’t the top three states for property buy-outs. In fact, according to the study, “they rank 23, 18, and 21, respectively.” Missouri, Texas, and Illinois were the top three ranking states.
The study is just a starting point, and notes that in FEMA’s publicly-available buyout data, “more than 50% of entries are empty for some fields.” We also don’t know the racial distribution of people that have successfully gotten a FEMA buy-out.
Although economically marginalized people of color “may be more likely to meet the eligibility requirements for buyouts,” the study says, we don’t know if the buy-outs have gone to disproportionately white people.
In an email to Motherboard, Mach said that she and the coauthors are focusing on strategizing planned retreat, evaluating goals for planned retreat, and interconnections between "displacement after disasters, migration, and retreat."
“Even though it isn't clear why buyouts are taking place in more vulnerable neighborhoods,” Mach said, “this pattern points to the importance of evaluating and ensuring equity in buyout practices and outcomes.”