Climate change is putting more places at risk of being inundated. Sea level rise is causing more chronic flooding and hotter oceans are amping up storms, leading to higher surge. That raises increasingly pressing questions about the future of people living along the coast. Will low-lying areas remain habitable in the coming decades? Can climate-safe housing buy us time—or even allow us to live with more water? And how can we help the increasing numbers of people who are already moving away from the coast to do so with dignity?
To learn more about the future of where and how we’re going to live, I reached out to A.R. Siders, a coastal adaptation expert at the University of Delaware, to talk about managed retreat and designing equitable systems for our new reality. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Molly Taft, Earther: What do we mean when we talk about managed retreat? How would you explain it to someone who thinks it just means packing up and leaving?
AR Siders: The way I usually describe it is purposefully coordinating and supporting the relocation of people and buildings out of the highest-risk areas. The difference between managed retreat and regular retreat is that regular retreat is just people abandoning their homes. The people who have left because of Ida—some of them will just never go home. Their home is damaged, they’ll live with family for several months, and they’ll just decide, nope, we’re not going back. That is unmanaged retreat. It’s harmful for people involved, for people who go back, for the town.
Managed retreat is—let’s not do that. Let’s help those people. I think the support and the planning that goes into managed retreat is really critical. Let’s pay people for their home so they buy a new home somewhere else, or let’s coordinate a whole neighborhood to relocate. Let’s talk about where we should build new housing so if you’re not living here by the river, you’re living on the other side of town. It also means let’s do something useful with the land that people have left, so it’s not just sitting there derelict.
When we talk about moving away from risky places, we’re not just moving away from hazardous places, we’re moving away from places that are the highest risk. A lot of places have some level of risk. You could flood anywhere, but if you’re living in the storm surge, that’s the highest-risk place. Some places you’re talking about 6 inches of water in your basement, other places you’re talking about the house being knocked off its foundations and totally destroyed.
Earther: Is there some sort of criteria for determining where the riskiest places are? Especially now that disasters are happening with such intensity and touching places that historically have been safer. What’s the difference between a place that’s sort of safe and totally unsafe—is there a line?
Siders: Drawing that line is really complicated for a couple reasons. Some hazards are more unpredictable than others. Floodplains tend to be pretty predictable. There are some exceptions, but if you’re living below sea level, you’re probably going to flood. I think that’s one of the reasons we mostly see people moving because of floods. If your house has flooded 10 times, it’s probably going to keep flooding. Whereas if your house burns down, it’s possible you won’t see another fire for the next 30 years. I think we should still be considering managed retreat for wildfire, but we see it most with floods.
The other thing that makes it difficult is every homeowner has their own level of risk. Some people are totally willing to live 15 feet (5 meters) up on stilts. They’re fine with that. Some people are not. Some people are totally willing to let the yard flood a month every year, and for some people that is totally not OK.
I would say there’s a clear line when you’re talking about safety. People have to make a distinction between the floodplain, where the water is going to come, and the floodway, where your house could be knocked off its foundation, and some of these are physical safety issues. Beyond that, though, the line does get fuzzier. It becomes about the level of risk people are willing to accept. Nowhere is perfectly safe, and we’re never going to make a place perfectly safe.
If you are not willing to ever live through a hurricane, you should probably not live in the Gulf. If you’re not willing to deal with a really cold winter, you should not live in northern Minnesota. But we obviously have to take a lot of steps to protect against the regular hurricanes.
Earther: I think when people think about the future of where we’re all going to live from a birds-eye view, it’s easy to say, “well, you just shouldn’t live in an unsafe place, period.” It’s kind of the same vibe we saw all this week about evacuation, this sentiment that people who didn’t evacuate ahead of Ida are idiots.
Earther: It sounds like, in the future, a lot of climate adaptation will be based more on individual choice and comfort level than we think. Is that correct?
Siders: Yes and no. How much risk you’re willing to accept is one piece of a very long list of reasons why you live where you do. I hate heat waves, but I live in a very hot place because that’s where my job is.
Many of the communities most at risk from flooding are low-income and communities of color. One of the reasons people live in those places is because we have a racist, discriminatory housing system. They’re not living there because they said, “oh, I’m fine dealing with flooding.” They’re living there because that’s the only place their forefathers were allowed to live.
One would hope in the future that will become less of an issue and people will start to live places more because they want to. But you’re still going to have constraints, like, I live in this town, the whole town floods, why do I keep living here, it’s because my family is here and my job is here.
When we talk about where “should” we live—my hometown, Duluth, has been named as one of the places for people to go.
Earther: Oh yeah, like on one of those listicles that pop up every couple of years—“climate change is coming! Where should you go???”
Siders: Frankly, lots of people aren’t going to move to Minnesota, particularly people from New Orleans, Florida—and that’s just fine. We shouldn’t be creating a narrative that says in order to be safe, you have to move a thousand miles away. When people move, most people move in the same county, in the same town if they can.
That’s what I mean about the highest risk places. You can live in New Orleans and be in a place that is very, very at risk, and you can live in New Orleans and be in a place that’s moderate risk.
Earther: Part of the fault of this seems like it might lie with climate reporters, or at least people who talk about climate all the time and generalizations like “Miami is toast,” “New Orleans is screwed.” People are not going to stop living there, though, and there are still ways to live there. In a place that is so high risk, what are ways to make it safer?
Siders: There are a few main categories of response. First, resistance: You try to prevent the water and the storm from getting to you by building levees and floodwalls. Accommodation is, the water comes and goes, so you try to reduce the damage it can do to you; you put your house on stilts, the water comes and goes, but it does less damage. And then you can avoid, which is, ‘hey let’s not build there in the first place,’ and you can also retreat.
Those are the big categories. Within those categories, there are hundreds of things you can do that are smaller things. You can layer defenses, build wetlands as well as seawalls, offshore and onshore floodwalls, you can take a lot of steps for these actions.
People often talk about these things as if they’re alternatives—either we’re going to relocate, or we’re going to build a floodwall. The reality is that we’re very likely going to use all of them. Some cities will use more than one and less than the other, and some will do the reverse. For a town like New Orleans, it’s going to involve all of them. There will be parts of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, perhaps in the next decade and certainly in the next 100 years, that aren’t going to be protected. People will end up relocating. In some parts, people will stay, and they’ll stay behind a 20-foot (6-meter) wall and up on 30-foot (9-meter) stilts.
Earther: So making these things happen—I feel like there’s maybe ideal ways to pay for this, but there’s obviously a lot of things that go wrong with the ways capitalism morphs risk and personal responsibility. So how could paying for this shake out?
Siders: There are so many ways to go wrong. Yes, buildings that are safer can cost more, and how much more depends on what you’ve done. Whether your house is built on a slab or not, for instance, makes a huge difference. Houses on slabs are much more expensive to elevate, but they’re cheaper to build. A lot of places are building cheap housing, so it becomes this tension of, we need affordable housing but we need to make sure it’s safe because it doesn’t help people in the long term to build housing that puts them at risk.
In terms of how we pay for it—the answer is we pay for it the same way we pay for everything else: revenue and taxes. The challenge is that it’s going to be expensive, so how are we going to pay for it? We’re going to tax someone.
There are currently some ways that this process is going wrong. We have federal pots of money that help communities deal with disasters. One of the critiques of most of these funds is that, until recently, most of the money becomes available right after disaster, and it’s all focused on building back. There’s little money spent on avoiding the disaster in the first place. FEMA has this new program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, so that may be changing. We may be getting more money to resist disasters rather than just picking up the pieces afterward.
Communities who get more money from FEMA appear to be wealthier, because they have more staff. Applying for these grants is a really difficult process. I study buyouts—people relocating—and the counties that get money from FEMA to buy out flood-prone homes are whiter, wealthier, and denser. The reason we think that’s happening is because they can afford the cost-share. The federal government will pay 75%, 90%, but even if a town has to pick up 10% of the tab, that can be really hard for some of these communities, especially if they have to pay upfront and be reimbursed. That becomes a challenge in terms of who is getting the aid: Is it the people who need it the most, or is it the people who are able to apply for and get it?
We base a lot of aid on the value of the property that is damaged, so by default a lot of aid is going to go to wealthy, dense infrastructure. You don’t build a million-dollar floodwall in front of a mobile home park. You build it in front of a mansion because that’s where it’s cost-effective. It doesn’t matter that the mobile home park may house hundreds of people—it’s the value of the property that is damaged. Just look at the way we report on disasters—we report the billions of dollars of damage. Aside from deaths, we don’t report the number of people affected.
The system was designed to make sure federal employees spent their money cost-effectively. The easiest way to calculate that out is to figure out what’s the value of the property behind the floodwall?
Even if a town does get the money, the way that they’re going to be instructed to spend it to make it cost-effective is to prioritize infrastructure. This creates a perverse incentive for local governments to build in the floodplain. The financial incentive is for local governments to build expensive properties in the floodplain and not care about the risk, because the federal government will pay for disaster recovery, not the local town. The town will reap all the benefits from the developers’ fees and the tax revenue, and once the disaster comes, they’ll get federal dollars to pay them out.
Earther: None of this surprises me but it all seems to really suck. How do we make sure these systems are more equitable as we’re going to be using them more and more? What can we change?
Siders: First, change the way we do damage calculations. Don’t base it off of property values, base it off of people. It still will prioritize building the seawall in front of dense places—urban places will get protection while rural places won’t—so it’s not totally equitable. But it’ll be a big step forward because it means you helped the mobile home park. Prioritizing people and putting them at the center of disaster management rather than property values would be a huge shift towards equity. That is doable—it would require us to do different calculations, but we could do it.
We need to make equity a priority. The Biden admin has earmarked 40% of federal funding and investments to go to communities affected by environmental injustice— let’s do more of that. They said, we’re going to prioritize investments in neighborhoods with higher percentage of residents of color, lower socioeconomic incomes, and they did. So for the first time, things like drainage ditches and other infrastructure are being built in these areas.
We have traditionally treated disaster management like we’re trying to build things back to what they were before the disaster. Climate change increasingly is showing us that’s not what we should be doing. Climate adaptation is not about maintaining the status quo. Frankly, the status quo sucks for a lot of people. It should be about doing something ideally better. That requires hard choices about what we’re going to change purposefully, and what we’re going to maintain and keep the same.
We have to think about doing things differently. New Orleans 100 years ago didn’t look exactly like it does today, and it won’t look like it does now 100 years from now. Things will change. Adaptation is deciding what things from 100 years ago we want to hold onto, and what things will change—and making sure a bunch of rich white people aren’t the only ones deciding what to hold onto.