Deciding Not to Rebuild After Climate-Related Disasters

Officials in large and small cities along the East Coast are realizing that maybe they shouldn’t rebuild on land that repeatedly floods. Instead they’re focusing on buyouts, building affordable housing on higher ground, and other mitigation efforts.

A flooded street in Princeville, North Carolina.
The muddy streets of Princeville, North Carolina, illustrate the destruction wrought by Hurricane Floyd. Photo by Dave Saville, via FEMA Photo Library

There is an extreme, persistent lack of affordable housing in the U.S. There is also an accelerating host of climate-related changes to our landscape—severe heat and drought, increased violent storms, rising sea levels, and worsening flooding. Each is a significant challenge on its own, but the lack of affordable housing and the increase in climate-related changes are related in many ways.

Lower-income households have historically been forced to live in less desirable areas—often flood-prone ones—making them more vulnerable to climate change-aggravated disasters. And where they have settled on higher ground, they may find themselves pushed out by wealthier people who are also fleeing sea level rise. Aid for recovery from frequent and severe disasters is often apportioned slowly and inequitably, compounding these problems. Meanwhile, in a cost-conscious industry, finding the funds to build affordable homes that are resilient to storms and flooding is an ongoing challenge.

While there are cities, states, and municipalities that are doing their best to make all sorts of buildings resilient, officials are usually responding to weather-related events rather than preemptively looking at issues like expected sea level rise, says Guillermo Ortiz, who formerly served as a researcher with the Center for American Progress and now works as the sustainability and diversity educational programs manager at the University of California. And when it comes to affordable housing development, the main concern is still about building more units. This is shortsighted thinking, says Ortiz. If you build 100 affordable units and then lose them in the next storm, you haven’t improved the situation.

Officials in areas like North Miami, Florida, and Princeville, North Carolina, are taking a different approach—they’re deciding not to rebuild on land that has seen its fair share of flooding and instead, they are focusing on buyouts, building on higher ground, and other mitigation efforts.

Flooding in North Miami

There is a growing realization that not every area can be saved. Towns are being wiped off the map due to regular flooding, says Ortiz. But a large-scale managed retreat—a coordinated movement away from areas that are prone to hazardous conditions—has significant challenges. “Florida, for example, has some of the most expensive homes in the country,” says Ortiz. “Imagine the panic and concern if there is acknowledgment that some areas are not fit for human settlement?”

While wholesale retreat is a tough pill to swallow, there are other options— targeted buyouts and the addition of natural water retention measures, for instance—that could be beneficial to areas that repeatedly flood. Those options have been the focus of officials in flood-prone North Miami, where the median household income is $40,661 and the percentage of people living in poverty is 21.5 percent.

North Miami is located in the Arch Creek area, which was built in the path of natural waterways, says Tanya Wilson, planning, zoning, and development director for the city. Sixty-five percent of the city is located on low-lying land that naturally collects water and floods.

Last year, with the help of the Van Alen Institute, a New York-based nonprofit design and planning organization, the city asked design firms to compete in a contest called “Keeping Current: Repetitive Loss Properties.” The aim of the competition was to find ways to reinvigorate underused public areas in North Miami, promote climate-conscious behavior, and reduce the cost of flood insurance.

The winner of the competition—a design firm called Department Design Office—received an $80,000 city contract to reengineer an 18,000-square foot, flood-prone lot located in a low-income neighborhood.

After an unnamed storm swamped a home and yard with several feet of water, making the property uninhabitable, the city purchased the lot in 2000, according to the Miami Herald.  The city used federal funding that was dedicated to purchasing properties in flood-prone areas in order to prevent them from being redeveloped. Over the years, the city has purchased a considerable number of flood-prone properties, according to a report by the Van Alen Institute.

In December, the newly designed site was unveiled to the public—it’s now half retention pond, half community education project, complete with landscaping to soak up excess water. “It can now absorb 20 times as much water as it did as a site for a single-family home,” says Wilson. 

“The idea [behind the reengineering of the site] is to return surface water to the water table. We want to replicate this type of flood mitigation in other places in the city,” says Wilson.

By creating these types of small parks, Wilsons says water can “go where it needs to go” and the area can be preserved for habitation. 

Rural Areas

While South Florida has never ceased to attract developers and speculators, rural areas tend to have a dearth of interest from developers, and often lack the resources to upgrade their properties, build new resilient affordable housing, or otherwise deal with threats from climate change.

North Carolina has some of the most vulnerable areas along the East Coast, says Tara Kenchen, former president and CEO of the North Carolina Community Development Initiative (NCCDI), which supports affordable housing, small business, and community revitalization throughout the state.

Hurricanes and the devastation they unleash are a fact of life in North Carolina, but exacerbating the situation is the fact that 80 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are considered rural, and rural towns don’t usually have an economic development staff person to “jump through all the hoops that state and federal level bureaucracies require” to get disaster aid, says Kenchen

Princeville, North Carolina—the first town in the U.S. to be incorporated by African Americans—was founded just after the Civil War. It was built on very low-lying land that the white people of the area did not want, says Kenchen. In 1999, Princeville—a town of about 2,200 people—was devastated by Hurricane Floyd, a Category 4 storm considered to be a 100-year-event. Hurricane Matthew hit the area in 2016, and though the storm was technically weaker, it was still fairly destructive. A total of 450 homes were destroyed, according to the Coastal Resilience Center, which is part of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and about 80 percent of the town was under water.    

Many residents who lived in and around the town were forced to leave after the storm because they couldn’t return to their homes due to the enormous amount of damage it caused, says Kenchen. 

Some homeowners were offered FEMA buyouts, but not all applications were accepted. One of the reasons for rejection, says Kenchen, was that many people did not have a clear title to their land.

FEMA, through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, has approved $8.9 million for mitigation and reconstruction in Princeville, says Laura Hogshead, chief operating officer at the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency. This allocation will cover the cost of buyouts, elevations, and mitigation construction, which involves tearing down a house and building it back at a higher elevation.

So far, FEMA has approved 22 homeowners for acquisition of their properties, says Glenda Knight, interim town manager for Princeville. Of those, 10 have accepted offers and nine purchases have closed. To qualify for a buyout, the occupant must have lived in an area that flooded and they must have clear ownership of the property. Once a property is bought out, a deed restriction is placed on the property prohibiting redevelopment.

Another 75 homes were approved for elevation, and three were approved for mitigation construction. Knight didn’t know how many homeowners applied for the program. In December of 2017, the state purchased 53 acres of forestland five miles from Princeville, on higher ground and outside of the flood plain, in order to expand the town. Hogshead says there are preliminary plans to build new affordable housing on the new land, which will probably be held in a community land trust.

There is also $168 million in Community Block Grant Mitigation (CBG-MIT) funds that the state of North Carolina will receive, “although HUD is vague about what it approves as mitigation,” says Hogshead. “It is anything that reduces future risk from any storm.

“We’ve submitted an action plan to HUD explaining how [the $168 million] will be spent, but it has not been approved yet. The money will go largely for buyouts.”

Whatever money is received from government sources to help in hurricane recovery, it is slow in coming. “Last August, HUD released guidelines for receiving the $168 million in [CDBG-MIT] money,” says Kenchen. “The funds were first awarded to North Carolina in the spring of 2018 even though Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016.”   

Wealthy residents who have insurance are made whole after a disaster like Matthew, so they can rebuild or recover more quickly and without having to rely on government largess, says Kenchen. “But even those with insurance can face delays or denials because of technicalities,” she says. The insurance company “may say that your damage was caused by a flood, not the hurricane . . . People who are poor, on the other hand, tend to lack insurance, or have owned a property whose market value isn’t enough to cover the cost of rebuilding or buying elsewhere.”

Of course just receiving money to rebuild, by itself, is not enough, says Kenchen.

“For all the talk about affordable and resilient housing, there must be a comprehensive approach for any of it to work.”

Chris Canfield of the Raleigh-based Conservation Trust of North Carolina, a land conservation organization that seeks to help build more resilient communities, agrees. It doesn’t work to just build back the way a property was built before, nor can disaster recovery be done piecemeal, Canfield says. All conditions on the ground need to be taken into account, including the hydrology and typography of the area.   

“Traditional conservationists just look at the land, but we’ve hired a design group associated with North Carolina State University that focuses on disaster work in order to do community-based planning,” says Canfield, the organization’s executive director. “We are partners with the town of Princeville.”

Canfield assesses the situation this way: “Rather than telling everyone they have to leave because flooding has become chronic,” he says, it may be possible to restore the flood plain function, which can be a matter of allowing a lake or river to over-flow its banks, if there is land and vegetation nearby that can absorb the overflow. 

The recovery process in Princeville is taking place on a lot of fronts, says Canfield. People in the town are raising homes and buildings, but where there is not an option, there may be wet proofing. “That involves taking out dry wall, putting in concrete floors and moving vulnerable equipment, such as air conditioning, to the roof,” he says.

The second week of January, Princeville received a welcome surprise from the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would spend $39.6 million to install levees around the Tar River near Princeville, and increase the elevations of highways in the area. The money comes from $740 million that was allocated to the Corps in a disaster-relief funding bill approved by Congress in 2019.

At the Policy Level

Since 1980, the U.S. has had over 250 weather and climate disasters, with increasing frequency in recent years. According to NOAA, the cost of these events has exceeded $1.7 trillion. From 2016 to 2018, the U.S. experienced 45 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, an average of 15 per year.

Given the enormity and the urgency of the problems caused by these disasters, there is pressure from the affected populations to make the recovery process go faster and help more people, especially the most vulnerable. That is why the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition of more than 800 local, state, and national organizations support the The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which would permanently authorize the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG–DR) program. CDBG-DR provides states and localities with flexible, long-term recovery resources needed to build affordable housing and infrastructure after a disaster.

The CDBG grant program is usually associated with distributing funds to take care of an existing problem, but the CDBG-DR program includes hazard mitigation grants that offer help before storms happen.

The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act is moving through the legislative process in a normal fashion, and there are signs of bipartisan support, says Ortiz of the University of California.

One reason for that may be that both parties’ elected representatives appear to acknowledge that disaster recovery is not a red or blue issue, says Ortiz. What has become obvious is that all states are being hit by climate disasters today, regardless of their political affiliations.

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