In the anticipation and aftermath of natural disasters, those in their path face difficult choices: To stay, or to leave? To relocate, or to rebuild in areas prone to the risk of property damage, which is predicted to become more acute as climate change progresses?
Storms are particularly threatening weather events, according to a report issued in 2015 by the United Nations, which found that over the span of 20 years, they accounted for 40 percent of global weather-related deaths. Research indicates that massive floods, projected in the 1970s to hit New York every 500 years, might hit the city every five years by 2030. In May 2018, a major flood ravaged Ellicott City, Maryland just two years after a similarly devastating storm inundated the community.
As journalists increasingly cover communities affected by climate change, academic researchers also have turned their attention to the topic. A growing body of research addresses the issue of responses to climate change, including the decision of whether to relocate or rebuild.
Several studies look at post-disaster home buyout programs, which offer residents pre-disaster prices for their homes to help them relocate. A 2018 paper in Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy reveals discrepancies between survey responses and qualitative descriptions elicited from residents who took buyouts after Hurricane Sandy, which damaged over five million residences when it made landfall in 2012. Survey results indicated residents’ satisfaction with their buyouts, but the interviews showed a dearth of information and communication, difficulties with the buyout process and feelings of a lack of choice (“the buyout as a foregone conclusion”). Puzzling as these decisions might seem to outsiders, the study highlights how they are all the more fraught for the individuals forced to choose.
Research indicates that sometimes the decision is tied to what the rest of the community chooses to do. A 2018 paper in Ocean and Coastal Management used survey data and geospatial data to analyze decisions to relocate after Hurricane Sandy. The study found that proximity to the water didn’t weigh heavily on the decision to relocate; other, more qualitative factors were more important. “The location of surveyed households, even though adequately dispersed to the oceanfront proximity, had only a minor effect on the willingness to relocate, suggesting that non-geophysical factors, such as household-level confidence in the ability to adapt and continue habitation in such locations, values, and other qualitative personal factors play a larger role,” the authors write.
A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Community Psychology looked at how two different communities, each affected by Hurricane Sandy, responded to government-sponsored home buyout programs, “assessing why, given demographic similarities and a similar threat level for future hazards, residents from one community largely chose to relocate and while residents of another community largely chose to stay.” The authors found that “community factors” were critical in decisions to relocate or remain in areas struck by Hurricane Sandy. They noted that “while the decision to accept or reject the buyout is made independently by each homeowner, this choice is tied to the decisions of one’s neighbors in a very real way.”
A 2018 paper in Disasters looked at relocation response to tornadoes in the United States. The researchers found that higher levels of damage predicted increased likelihood of relocating. Again, community ties also played a role in the decision to stay: homeownership decreased the likelihood of relocating among younger adults, which the researchers interpreted both in terms of ties to the community and higher relocation costs. Older adults were less likely to relocate than younger adults surveyed.
In the developing world, though people in vulnerable areas worldwide are often aware of environmental risks — like the residents of Uttarakhand, India, who were affected by powerful floods and landslides in 2013, many are resistant to relocation for personal, cultural or economic reasons. A 2018 study in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction cites the links between place and livelihood, including tourism and farming. Further, some people don’t have the resources necessary to move — a fact highlighted by a 2016 paper in Environmental Hazards that emphasizes socioeconomic reasons why coastal households chose not to evacuate during a cyclone in Bangladesh.
Similarly, a paper published in Population and Environment in 2016 offered a few explanations for staying put based on a survey of residents in vulnerable areas of Peru, including “high levels of satisfaction, resource barriers and low mobility potential.” And relocating after a disaster is, in some cases, even more expensive than usual. A paper published in 2018 in Nature Sustainability found that after a tsunami in Indonesia, prices for properties farther inland rose, leading to “socio-economic sorting of poorer households into coastal areas.”
On the relocation side, scholars have conceptualized a framework for categorizing communities that underwent managed retreat (a strategy in which communities are moved from vulnerable to more secure areas, often by government entities) on the basis of two main factors: who initiates the relocation and who benefits from it. The paper, published in 2017 in Nature Climate Change, might help scholars, reporters and policy makers anticipate the processes by which communities relocate and their outcomes.
The effect of the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968
Meanwhile, in the United States, there are government programs that distort the true costs of living in environmentally vulnerable areas by offering subsidized insurance in places that might otherwise be, for good reason, exorbitantly expensive to insure.
In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968. “Many factors have made it uneconomic for the private insurance industry alone to make flood insurance available to those in need of such protection on reasonable terms and conditions,” the Act reads. “But a program of flood insurance with large-scale participation of the Federal Government and carried out to the maximum extent practicable by the private insurance industry is feasible and can be initiated.”
In other words, the Act offers flood insurance to homeowners who otherwise would be priced out of such protection due to their susceptibility to flooding.
Chad J. McGuire, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, published a chapter in the Handbook of Climate Change Communication titled “Considering the Role of Government in Communicating Climate Change: Lessons from the US Public Flood Insurance Program,” which provides historical background on the program. McGuire elaborates how this policy increases the demand for coastal homes by decreasing the costs of living in these areas and associated perceptions of risk. “In summary, the current program charges below-market premiums and provides disaster relief assistance in a way that distorts the carrying costs of coastal living by artificially lowering those costs,” he writes. This in turn signals lower levels of risk to the public.
A 2017 working paper authored by Howard Kunreuther at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School highlights how the National Flood Insurance Act, and other, similar policies, along with a set of common cognitive biases, can limit adaptation to climate change.
“The higher private costs of more stringent building standards, wildfire fuel reduction, actuarially-fair insurance rates and movement away from hazards receive push back from constituents who desire to maintain or expand existing programs. Compelled by the salience driven demands and myopic voting of their constituents, politicians respond by limiting policy reform and emphasizing disaster recovery rather than preparedness or adaptation,” Kunreuther writes.
A working paper published in May 2018 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which analyzes particular land markets’ responses to climate change, draws similar conclusions: “These findings suggest that specific land markets dominated by flood or wildfire risk or those on the margin of agricultural production that rely upon crop insurance to be viable may be unlikely to provide the signals needed for adaptation to climate change.” The authors cite a National Resources Defense Council statistic to highlight how the National Flood Insurance Program incentivizes rebuilding in areas particularly prone to severe, repetitive flooding: 9.6 percent of all damages paid by the Program between 1978 and 2015 represented just 0.6 percent of the 5.1 million insured properties. Other factors that might influence the decision to relocate or rebuild include the availability of recovery funding, the mortgage industry and the health of the economy, according to a chapter in Will Miami Survive? The Dynamic Interplay Between Floods and Finance.