Managing Retreat Equitably
A DISCUSSION OFA Concerted and Equitable Approach to Managed Retreat
In “A Concerted and Equitable Approach to Managed Retreat” (Issues, Summer 2021), Kavitha Chintam, Christopher Jackson, Fiona Dunn, Caitlyn Hall, Sindhu Nathan, and Bernat Navaro-Serer call for expanded efforts by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support managed retreat—a strategy to reduce risk by relocating homes and other infrastructure away from hazard-prone areas—in an equitable manner. They describe how inequalities in community resources to apply for and administer federal funds may exacerbate historical social inequalities, and they call for greater support for persons displaced by climate change and natural hazards. Some of the changes they propose are already in place. For example, relocation assistance for renters is already required by the Uniform Relocation Act; FEMA incentivizes properties that experience “substantial damage” to relocate through requirements to rebuild at higher elevations; and FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program is an explicit attempt to provide more risk mitigation funding. But the authors’ overarching point that existing measures are often insufficient remains important.
Developing strategic support for managed retreat will require coordinated actions by numerous federal agencies and state and local governments. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, oversees more postdisaster funding than any other agency, including FEMA, and has funded numerous relocations, in whole or part, through its Community Development Block Grant programs. In fact, almost every federal agency receives funding following a major disaster, and where and how they spend those funds shapes the willingness and ability of communities to relocate or to receive displaced persons. Relocation is influenced, for example, by where schools are rebuilt, using funds from the Department of Education; what roads are elevated, using funds from the Department of Transportation; what small businesses recover, using loans from the Small Business Administration; and where floodwalls are built by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
State and local governments determine where new buildings are constructed and to what standards. They, and not the federal government, have authority over building codes and land-use laws. According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, over 80% of properties that have received FEMA funding to address repeat flood risk received that funding as a buyout. Managed retreat, through buyouts, is therefore FEMA’s primary means of addressing repetitive flood loss. Nevertheless, the number of homes at risk of repeat flooding has increased over the past two decades. This is, in part, because state and local governments have not exercised their authority to redirect new construction away from the most flood-prone areas. Federal reform, to encourage risk reduction, will need to create greater incentives for local governments to act and will need to build local capacity to meet their greater responsibilities.
I agree with Chintam et al. that managed retreat requires a more holistic approach than has been the case to date. However, I am cautious about expanding the role of FEMA to address land use, housing, development, and employment. FEMA was originally established to provide federal assistance in response to disasters that overwhelm local and state resources. Over time, FEMA has been required to take a larger role in reducing risk, and climate change undoubtedly requires a different approach to disaster management and risk reduction.
However, it is probable that other agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have more experience in directing development and establishing incentives or training programs to entice or enable displaced persons to resettle in less risk-prone areas, and it is possible that state governments could or should play a larger role in guiding development (housing, business, and infrastructure) toward safer areas within their borders. FEMA could, and probably should, provide additional funding and incentives for local governments to engage in relocation. But as Chintam et al. note, local involvement is likely to remain crucial in tailoring future relocation programs to local contexts, to avoid losing histories or erasing identities.
A. R. Siders
Assistant Professor of Geography and Public Policy
University of Delaware