In the fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall 400 miles south of Hampton, New Hampshire—far enough to spare the small coastal town the worst of its wrath but close enough to whip up heavy surf, flood a few streets, and blow sand onto roads, sidewalks, and buildings.
One of the most destructive hurricanes to strike the United States, Sandy made clear that rising seas and more extreme weather were not far-off concerns, but immediate threats. Hampton residents talked seriously about how they could adapt to climate change, but one particular subject proved difficult to broach—the idea that some owners of vulnerable properties might abandon their homes and move to safer ground.
“When we started talking to some people about managed retreat, what immediately came to mind was, ‘You’re going to take my home by eminent domain,’ even though we never said that,” said Jay Diener, a local conservationist who led coastal flooding workshops with residents.
In the past few years, tidal flooding has only grown worse in Hampton. Last winter, storms pushed some houses off their foundations. The real estate market is seeing an impact.
Diener believes the community is now ready to consider all options, including managed retreat. His organization, the Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance, is working with residents and state and local government agencies to evaluate a range of adaptation strategies—from improvements to individual properties to new seawalls to retreat—and to identify trigger points, implementation requirements, and funding options for each one.
Across the United States, hundreds of coastal communities face similar decisions. Chronic flooding will increase dramatically in the coming decades, even under the best-case scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions plummet, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. The impact will be widespread: coastal counties are home to about 130 million people, and at least $1.4 trillion in property lies within about 200 yards of the coast.
The Hampton project is one of five community-led projects across the U.S. considering managed retreat with support from the Climigration Network, an initiative of the Consensus Building Institute and the Lincoln Institute. The initiative seeks to help communities find productive ways to talk about managed retreat as they make big decisions about their future.
“There’s a reality here that people are ignoring or are too afraid to talk about,” said Carri Hulet, who oversees the Climigration Network for the Consensus Building Institute.
Managed Retreat in Practice
Managed retreat often takes place through buyout programs, in which homeowners receive compensation to give up their property. State and local agencies typically administer buyouts, but most of the funding comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Lincoln Institute report Buy-In for Buyouts reviews the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of buyouts in the U.S., provides case studies from the New York metropolitan region after Hurricane Sandy, and recommends several strategies for communities at risk of flooding.
Communities face many challenges in implementing buyouts. Many people do not want to move, even as their homes become increasingly vulnerable. Also, cities and towns worry about the impact of buyouts on their budgets as properties are taken off the tax rolls. These and other factors make it critical to engage communities in planning and decision-making.
“Even if it makes sense to leave and people want to, they don’t like being told what to do, and they especially don’t like being told by the government,” Hulet said. “They also might not think what they are being offered is fair.”
Managed retreat is not simply a question of facts and numbers. Nowhere is this clearer than in southern Louisiana, the site of another project supported by the Climigration Network. The region is ground zero for climate-induced migration in the United States, due to its expanse of wetlands, bayous, and industrial canals. Louisiana loses a football field of land every 100 minutes because of sea-level rise and subsidence, the sinking of land caused in part by centuries of unsustainable land-use and engineering practices.
The tiny island community of Isle de Jean Charles, about 75 miles south of New Orleans, has become a national symbol of the crisis. Once an inland community 35 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the island has lost nearly all of its land since the 1950s, and the last 60 residents—mostly Native American members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe—are preparing to relocate en masse.
Kristina Peterson, cofounder of the nonprofit Lowlander Center, has worked with the tribe for more than a decade. Finding places for new communities where people can preserve their cultural traditions is as important as addressing fiscal concerns, not just for Isle de Jean Charles but for other at-risk communities in the region, she said.
“It’s not about housing,” Peterson said. “It’s about dwelling in and with a community of friends and family that go back generations. The house is only the place where you have shelter. People want to stay as a connected supportive community, with relatives and friends that lend mutual aid to each other, and they’re going to look for places where they can do that.”
The Lowlander Center and its partners are preparing to facilitate a series of dialogues between leaders of at-risk coastal communities throughout southern Louisiana and inland communities and regions that might receive displaced networks of families and friends.
“We’re mapping the state to see where the safest areas are,” Peterson said. “We are looking where there are affinity groups that are most connected with mutual values and interests such as food, music, and faith that can bring people and communities together. Utilizing the strengths of our population is essential for a positive future for both those who will sojourn and for those who will render hospitality.”
In Texas, Florida, New York, and Alaska, other organizations received support from the Climigration Network to explore a variety of approaches, from theater to technical training, to help communities talk about managed retreat.
“You can have the most well-designed buyout program in the world, but if you try to implement it top-down without a community’s enthusiastic participation, you are unlikely to succeed,” said Amy Cotter, director of urban programs for the Lincoln Institute. “The Climigration Network is a big step forward in developing approaches that will help communities make difficult decisions about managed retreat on their own terms.”
Photograph Credit: Jay Diener