Moving Away From Flood Risks, but Not Far

The floods and fires exacerbated by climate change will push an increasing number of people out of their homes.

It turns out, though, that many people who’ve already had to move out of harm’s way haven’t gone very far. At least not in the United States, according to a new study by researchers at Rice University who focused on floods. And race appears to be a factor in how and where they move.

The authors combed through data on thousands of Americans who moved out of their homes because of flood risks between 1990 and 2017, after being bought out through a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About three-quarters stayed within a 20-mile drive of their old homes.

To find out more about the paper and what policymakers can learn from it, I talked to one of the researchers, James R. Elliott, a sociologist who has been studying disaster recovery since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Here is our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Why are people staying close?

The why question is one we have to infer from other studies. In prior research, we ask people, and it sort of comes out in this generic “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” Well, what does that actually mean? And it turns out there is a really complex heuristic that people are tied to where they are through routines, commutes, social networks.

People are moving locally. But are they moving to safer places?

What was surprising to me is that on average, folks did quite substantially reduce their flood risk. Even in this very small move, they’re making those decisions. The question then becomes, financially, you know, how many people have the resources to be able to do those types of moves and to accomplish those goals.

We know from previous reports that the majority of the money from these programs is going to white communities. Why is that?

You may say that’s because they’re hoarding the resources. Like, yeah, sounds reasonable, but it’s also because I think communities of color, like the ones we see in Houston, are very reluctant to move. They may think, where else are we going to move? There are no other affordable houses around us, and we distrust the government.

Your analysis also says that people in majority-white communities resist moving. Can you explain why?

It’s the racial status of that neighborhood and the investments that go in, the financial and the physical safety and the public infrastructure that gets built. It’s safer to stay in that space and risk losing equity in your house where no one will buy it, because there are social investments that tend to happen in those neighborhoods. So people will wait or they’ll sell on the private market.

The uniform things that seem to happen regardless is people do stay relatively close and they do reduce their flood risk. And if they live in a majority-white community, I don’t know their race, they move to a majority-white community. Basically, 95 percent of the time that happens, even in a metro area where you have other choices.

What’s a message to policymakers?

It’s to realize that it’s staying local. It is not this crazy biblical migration, at least not in the U.S. Not yet. And so to the extent that you’re going to get people to voluntarily retreat, you have to imagine situations where there has to be housing nearby that’s safer and doesn’t disrupt their community life.

The good news for policymakers is that people are going to stay close by and large, and that’s good for the tax bases. And people are going to reduce their flood risk. They are paying attention to that. So that’s good news. So more affordable housing nearby and planning that’s really putting that front and center.

And the challenges?

I think the sticky wicket is realizing that there is going to be a resistance in communities of color and a distrust to being uprooted, and, in majority-white communities, they can’t imagine living anywhere else. So bottom line, it’s not just flood risk and insurance premiums that are driving and shaping how this retreat is going to unfold. It’s the racial landscape and the availability of housing nearby.

From the Climate Forward team: Next Tuesday is the Independence Day holiday in the United States. We’ll be taking the day off. The newsletter will be back on Friday July 7.

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Correction: Because of an editing error, the Tuesday newsletter stated incorrectly the location of a brewery that is shifting to electric boilers. It is in Fort Collins, Colo., not Belgium.

Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.