Timothy Makepeace, JWST Vertical Primary Mirror, 2017, charcoal and pastel on paper, 49 x 49 inches.

Retreating From Rising Waters

“Disaster recovery” is a generous concept, in theory. But the reality is much muddier, and the issues plaguing the communities that Nicholas Pinter describes in “True Stories of Managed Retreat From Rising Water” (Issues, Summer 2021) are daunting.

Rural river towns are often critical for surrounding agricultural production, and in some lucky cases, such as Gays Mills, Wisconsin, are home to important manufacturing facilities. But their location, part of their appeal, can render them prone to floods. Often, many of these communities also face pre-disaster challenges, such as internal community fracturing, financial shortages, an aging population, and outdated housing stock. The dangers for residents during rescue events, as well as their frustrations with repeated cleanups, are not trivial.

A lack of resources to move anywhere before, or after, an event is also a reality for many. Given current programs and policies, it is unlikely that government funding or insurance coverage could cover buyouts that would allow people or communities to relocate to safer locations. New types of collaboration involving the private sector will be needed, along with new goals for development. Rather than focusing on building spotty new developments that can further sprawl, the aim should be to design for flexibility that incorporates housing, businesses, shared green spaces, and facilities that foster independence. This strategy can attract people to safer and better new sites, and do so in advance of disaster.

The good news is that there have been tremendous advances in both understanding what is needed for preparedness and in the building sciences, so that it is increasingly possible to quickly develop flexible and attractive state of the art housing. Human needs for connection, green space, and self sufficiency need to be embraced. To rebuild or relocate a town to make each resident “whole” is unlikely in the coming years, and technology, planning, and a cultural understanding that moving to smarter communities and perhaps different types of shelters might in some cases be the wisest use of resources.

To capitalize on the opportunities, we need private planners and developers, along with federal leadership, to promote innovation that will help create attractive mixed-use rural communities that can become the vibrant, sustainable choices of the future. We need to realize that doing so will result in better management of limited resources of time, money, and materials. Refurbishing power grids to have backup capability to support self-sufficiency can also mitigate wholesale disaster.

Rather than focusing on building spotty new developments that can further sprawl, the aim should be to design for flexibility that incorporates housing, businesses, shared green spaces, and facilities that foster independence.

And in a more profound shift, residents and policymakers in flood-prone areas will benefit from embracing the cultural reality that moving to a safer location is not a failure, or to be feared, but rather a smart strategy—environmentally, financially, and from a quality of life perspective—regardless of the disaster relocation funds available. Of course, government or private-sector aid can make moving an economically easier choice. Over time, smart planning and development investment in smarter places will become a natural transition, rather than scrambling under the pressure of disaster recovery.

As the managed retreat case studies that Pinter describes have been whispering, there are better ways to prepare, rebuild elsewhere, and embrace a new lifestyle without breaking the collective bank or tolerating years of trauma after a disaster. Getting on with life comes from rapid response, embracing transitions, and new ideas. Managed retreat can work, but the cultural mindset that being “made whole” or remaining in place is not a real option. Managed planning and innovation will save us via public and private collaboration.

Former Gays Mills Recovery Coordinator, 2009-2013

She is a business, housing, and community developer in Southwest Wisconsin

In his review of the rich 140-year history of relocation projects to respond to and protect from floods in the United States, Nicholas Pinter provides important insights that can be applied in implementing managed retreat in other countries as well. While managed retreat can eliminate disaster risks, there are many challenges to implementing projects.

As the author’s examination of Japanese cases of managed retreat shows, the country has promoted large-scale relocation programs following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. The disaster killed over 20,000 people, completely destroyed some 130,000 buildings, and partially damaged 1 million more. Local governments in affected areas prohibited the construction of new houses and bought up lands in at-risk areas of tsunamis in the Tohoku Region. In all, Japan has conducted managed retreat for more than 100 years since the recovery from the 1896 tsunami in the Tohoku Region.

Japan and the United States share common lessons from managed retreat projects, but can learn from each other as well. Furthermore, they can share these lessons with the rest of the world.

While managed retreat can eliminate disaster risks, there are many challenges to implementing projects.

Japan could reconstruct local communities in safe areas by conducting managed retreat just as the US reduced flood risks. Japan experiences the same issues of complicated implementation processes as the United States in building consensus among the affected people, securing funding, and supporting vulnerable and low-income groups. In addition, the population in affected areas along the seacoast has declined and some local communities have collapsed. Some members of local communities cannot wait years to complete managed retreat and move to major cities that provide better education and job opportunities. These are challenges in promoting managed retreat in any country.

Support for local governments is essential in promoting managed retreat. Generally speaking, local governments have limited capacity to implement the complicated processes of managed retreat. Specialists are involved in planning and implementing in both countries.

Japan should learn from the approaches of the United States to sustain local businesses. Communities’ members relocated to higher safe grounds currently face difficulties in accessing shopping centers and commercial facilities. Considering residential, industrial, and commercial areas together is essential in rehabilitating people’s lives at relocation sites.

The Japanese system of managed retreat includes not only buy-outs of damaged sites but also developing relocation sites so that communities can be maintained at relocation sites. The country has constructed 393 relocation sites, which contain some 48,000 houses and 30,000 units of public apartments. The programs of tsunami recovery cover supporting measures to vulnerable groups. Older people and members of low-income groups, who cannot afford to construct new houses, can live in public apartments with subsidized rents. Local governments send supporting teams to ensure that older adults do not become isolated from their communities. A nongovernmental organization is operating an “Ibasho” house that assists the lives of older people.

Countries that are vulnerable to natural hazards can apply managed retreat as an adaptation measure to increased disaster risks due to climate change. By exchanging knowledge, countries can strengthen policies and approaches to promote managed retreat to make societies more resilient to natural disasters.

Visiting Professor, Graduate School of Frontier Sciences

University of Tokyo, Japan

Cite this Article

“Retreating From Rising Waters.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 1 (Fall 2021).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2021