To Adapt to Climate Change, Retreat Is Necessary

To Adapt to Climate Change, Retreat Is Necessary

To Adapt to Climate Change, Retreat Is Necessary

Four years after Hurricane Sandy, many coastal communities recognize that rising oceans mean relocating their residents. But there is no consensus on how to do so.


Albert Piacenti needs a house house. Apartment life—New York City life, by and large—doesn’t quite work for him. The 34-year-old has trouble walking, so climbing stairs is tough. Neighbors in close quarters have been known to stare and complain. A washing machine is essential.1

“You can’t be running to no laundromat,” says Sal Piacenti, Albert’s father and caretaker.2

So in 2011 Sal, a Brooklyn native who had lived most of his life in apartments, bought a house for himself and his son on Staten Island. It was tiny, but it was their own, with a yard and a fence and a washing machine. The accessibility gave both Albert, who lives with autism and cerebral palsy, and Sal, who has impaired vision, a quality of life they’d been chasing for years. “The house was perfect for us,” Sal says.3

Just one year later, Hurricane Sandy would bear down right outside their door on Staten Island’s exposed eastern edge, and fill the house with eight feet of water.4

Sal quickly set about making repairs with the money from his flood-insurance payout. He was about halfway done when FEMA informed him that he would need to elevate it 13 feet into the air, or face crippling insurance premiums. The requirement meant that his dream home—that is, an accessible one—would no longer be so accessible. That’s when Sal realized he and Albert could no longer live in the city they knew as home. 5

They are not alone, of course. After Sandy made landfall in 2012, it destroyed or damaged roughly 305,000 homes in New York, killing 53 people and leaving the state with $42 billion in damages. Since then, more than 700 home-owning New York families alone have relocated as a result of the storm. Renters or public-housing tenants who have relocated are harder to track, but at least 2,000 were displaced to hotel rooms after Sandy and almost as many registered for affordable housing within six months of Sandy. Across the globe, growing numbers of people are being permanently displaced by climate-change impacts—the 1,000-year floods and megadroughts and superstorms generated by rising temperatures. By now experts have established that the damage Sandy wrought was made worse by rising sea levels, linking it indisputably to climate change.6

New York state has predicted that by 2100, rising seas could swallow up to six feet of its shore, the same year real-estate firm Zillow says nearly 2 million US homes could be underwater. A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts a Sandy-level flood will be more than four times as likely by that time. As this plays out, academia and government officials increasingly agree that large numbers of Americans will need to move, even as some experts warn that we don’t really know how to effectively pull it off.7

Not long after Sandy receded, researchers Sherri Brokopp Binder and Alex Greer took to the streets in several communities that were hit hard by the storm. These were working-class neighborhoods, to where decades of public policies had shunted heavy industry, highways, and public housing, simultaneously making them less desirable to New York’s developers and the city’s only real oases of affordable housing.8

As these neighborhoods had similar histories and exposure to flood and storm risk, Brokopp Binder and Greer wanted to understand why some residents were quick to pick up and leave, while others resolved to rebuild and stay put. They started in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, just down the street from Albert and Sal, the first neighborhood to take a a special enhanced buyout from New York State, in which the homeowners relocated en masse away from the island’s shore. Brokopp Binder interviewed homeowners there and in Rockaway Park in Queens, where most residents decided to remain. Her findings were published in the American Journal of Community Psychology.9

“In Oakwood Beach, people would talk mostly about their individual homes, all the work they had done to be able to buy a single-family, detached home with a yard in New York City on their pretty modest incomes,” says Brokopp Binder, who now runs her own research firm. “They could walk us through decades of efforts that they’d put into their homes. Whereas in Rockaway, people were just as strongly attached, but there the attachment was less to the individual home and more to the area. Once you leave Rockaway, you leave Rockaway.”10

Sal and Albert, like their fellow Staten Islanders, were more attached to their home than to their neighborhood. Sal had grown up in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, and while it was hard to leave his family and his hometown behind, ultimately the choice was clear. After some time in a temporary apartment, they eventually packed up and moved to Larksville, Pennsylvania, near Wilkes-Barre, a place where they had lived once before. “It was a better idea to come back here,” Piacenti says. “The services [for Albert] got better here. I can afford where I’m living.”11

Relocation programs are a historically sensitive topic for local governments, which don’t like to see decreases in population or in their tax base. But with climate change increasingly threatening the lives and homes of people on the coasts, that reluctance is starting to shift. Post-Sandy, the city and the state of New York both established programs to purchase homes damaged by the storm in certain risky areas, theoretically allowing for homeowners to pick up and move somewhere safer. As of now, there is no requirement as to where state-buyout recipients must move, but the state offers a 5 percent bonus for relocating within the city to those in the special buyout areas of Staten Island. So far the state has officially purchased 613 of the 750 houses it made offers on in Staten Island and Long Island, totaling $240 million. For its part, New York City just proposed adding a $50,000 bonus to its acquisition offers for homeowners willing to relocate within the five boroughs. The city plans to make 600 such offers, and has already purchased 31 homes. According to NYC Housing Recovery Operations, “The vast majority of Sandy affected applicants whose homes were substantially damaged would have been consulted about the possibility of selling their home.”12

But the buyouts and acquisitions are dwarfed by the money spent on rebuilding and stormproofing housing where it stands. New York State has paid $1 billion to 11,000 residents to repair and rebuild their homes, and $76 million to repair rental properties. The city projects it will serve 19,500 households through its Build It Back program—of which acquisition is just a small part—with nearly 4,000 construction starts to date. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that program’s total cost would be $2.46 billion.13

That the bulk of money is being spent on rebuilding belies the fact that experts and government officials acknowledge that relocation from the riskiest areas will be necessary. “Managed retreat is the strategy that most effectively mitigates the risk of catastrophic flooding,” a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery told The Nation. “By removing man-made impediments and restoring the wetlands, we are recreating the best coastal buffer that nature can offer. This is all the more important in the face of imminent sea level rise and the new reality of increasingly frequent storms.”14

This acceptance of relocation reaches up to the federal level, says Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.15

“We have a lot of our built communities increasingly in harm’s way,” says Sullivan. “With the frequency and the severity of these events, with storm surge and sea-level rise, we can’t afford to rebuild in the way that we’ve always intended to rebuild. The model a generation ago was to rebuild to what things were. And we can’t do that.”16

Yet there is no consensus on how this retreat should be managed. Many government and academics agree that the ultimate decision to move should be made at the local and even individual levels, determined by the residents themselves. Beyond that, say Brokopp Binder and her research partner Greer, there’s currently no common set of guidelines for state governments offering buyouts as a way for their residents to deal with the escalating fury of climate change.17

The way it works now, states that want offer a buyout program apply for federal money to do so, typically through HUD or FEMA. Then, says Brokopp Binder, “The states are really solely responsible for designing and implementing these buyout programs. There’s no set of best practices, there’s no ‘here’s what we know works in buyouts and what we know doesn’t.’” She continued, “Every single program is unique. Every one.”18

Government buyout programs have existed in some form around 40 years, deployed most often in situations of flooding, where living was made untenable. In 1978, the federal government gave just under $1 million to the riverside village of Soldier’s Grove, Wisconsin, which had experienced repeated flooding for decades to relocate its business district to higher ground. Since then, programs of varying types have been adopted in just about every corner of the country. In January, Louisiana was granted $48 million from HUD for the relocation of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe on Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost 90 percent of its landmass since 1955. In August, the Alaskan village of Shishmaref voted to retreat from its location on the state’s eroding northwest shore, and are now seeking an estimated $180 million in funds from a variety of sources.19

Since all of these programs look a little different, it’s hard to compare their effectiveness. Following Hurricane Katrina, as with Sandy, relocations were structured pretty much like private sales, where residents made individual choices on their next moves. In other places, as in Louisiana or Alaska, the community is moving on together. Some experts believe that these differences hint at a rural-urban difference in attitudes.20

Anamaria Bukvic, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech who researches planning and climate change adaptation, also did relocation research on the ground following Sandy. But some of her more recent work has studied different attitudes among rural and urban residents along the coast of Virginia. Perhaps predictably, rural residents tend to have stranger attachments to place—and to one another. “They just have stronger cohesion and they want to stay with their family and neighbors,” Bukvic said. “In the big city a lot of people, they are more likely to have moved from somewhere else before. They have options. For them it’s easier to leave emotionally because they don’t have such strong roots as people who’ve been there for generations.”21

Though every area has different needs, Brokopp Binder and Greer maintain that the lack of an organized effort to evaluate relocation practices on a larger scale may lead to unintended outcomes. In fact, Brokopp Binder is now doing follow-up research on residents who relocated from Oakwood Beach, with initial findings that “a good number” of residents uprooted their lives to move to areas that are just as risky, mostly because those are the only places they can afford. “If we are investing in these programs and putting people through these experiences we should at least be pretty sure that they come out safer on the other end,” Brokopp Binder says. “And right now we have reason to believe that that’s not necessarily the case.”22

Sullivan, at HUD, emphasizes that the federal government absolutely does not want to be directing “mass migrations” from the top down, and that decisions about whether to relocate or not should be made at made at the local level. Agency resources are limited, so states create their own plans, Sullivan says, adding that HUD will soon issue a new rule about where exactly investments can be made with taxpayer dollars. But he stops short of saying there are any federal-level plans to ramp up relocation efforts on a larger scale. “We just have to rethink it all,” he says.23

As things stand, most agree the relocation process is traumatic. Sal and Albert’s story is no exception. After a brief stay with a friend they moved into a temporary apartment, with new caregivers circling in and out after Albert’s longtime aide had to quit. Sal took so much time off work that he was afraid for his job. “Everything was just upside down after that storm,” Sal says. His neighborhood, Midland Beach, petitioned for a state buyout early on, but with some homeowners not on board, it didn’t go through.24

Joseph Sant is director of homeowner services at the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that partners with the city’s Build It Back program to help navigate residents through the labyrinth of options, requirements, and paperwork. “It’s striking how many factors, as a homeowner, you have to predict,” when navigating buyout programs, he says. “Your decision depends on your neighbors, and you can also seal the fate of your neighbor with your decision. These things are all intertwined with changing rules and regulations, and it creates so much uncertainty.”25

Sal eventually received another offer from the state for more than he owed on his home at the time. That’s when he and Albert picked up and moved to Pennsylvania. With rent payments on their new home there, Sal was forced to stop paying his old mortgage. In the meanwhile, HUD, which insures his mortgage, hasn’t accepted the state’s purchase offer, which won’t cover foreclosure fees and accrued interest. They are now in foreclosure hearings that continue to drag on—his 14th court date was last week, ending in the bank’s seeking another appraisal of his home.26

“I’m hoping that all this some how gets straightened out. Because it’s just not fair,” says Sal. “We need to move on now. The house in Staten Island is not for us anymore.”27

Brokopp Binder and Greer heard similar stories of stress, confusion, and time pressure in their hundreds of interviews with Sandy survivors—which is why they continue to pursue research on how well these programs are serving the public, especially as the need for them escalates on pace with the sea itself.28

“This is pretty big and it’s going to get bigger,” she says. “Why don’t we fund the research? Why don’t we conduct the evaluations? Why don’t we collaborate to make sure that we’re doing as much as we possibly can on our end?”29

Homeowners affected by Sandy at least have the theoretical option to sell their home. Renters, especially the hundreds of thousands of New York public-housing tenants left reeling after the storm, have found themselves in the particular bind of deciding whether to stay or to leave in a city experiencing a housing crisis. “Usually people who are renters…aren’t offered the same level of aid, because it’s thought that they can just pack up and move,” says Greer, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State who researches disaster recovery.30

Community advocates in Sandy-affected areas echo these concerns. “It would take a lot for public-housing residents in Red Hook to voluntarily leave their homes because of limited affordable housing alternatives in the city,” says Catherine McBride, community development program manager at Red Hook Initiative.31

Last year, FEMA awarded New York City a $3 billion grant to repair and bolster 250 public housing buildings that were badly damaged by Sandy. Many public-housing residents still live in the 100-year floodplain.32

While decisions to stay or leave are intended by federal agencies to be voluntary, the deluge of funding and flooding and pressure on all sides leave many residents in situations where they feel they have no choice.33

“We sort of bristle at the expression,” says Sullivan at HUD, “but it’s not unwarranted to call the folks that are moving climate refugees. People here were like, ‘I don’t know if I like that.’ I mean the word ‘refugee’ is just loaded.”34

For now, Sal and Albert are doing well in their new-to-them two-bedroom house. It has a yard for Albert, and the neighbors are nice. They’re renting currently, but hope to buy it once they finally shed the home they were forced leave behind. And though they live near the Susquehanna River, Sal says they should be safe for a long time.35

“I stayed very clear of it. I’m on the outskirts away from the river and up on a hill,” he says. “I think the world will be destroyed if I get flooded now.”36

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